How the uniformed services and other major U.S. government agencies deal with both private and official use of social networks and technology has evolved almost as quickly as social media itself.
With smartphones, computers, tablets and everything from cars to toasters increasingly connected and communicating, access to personal, military and other cyber sites has led to new specialties to deal with a growing cyber battlespace and the rules of engagement for a pervasive info-war. The latest cellphones, while thinner and lighter than ever, can hold more information internally than the most advanced desktop computers at the end of the 20thCentury – yet only a fraction of what they can access, at increasingly faster data rates, from wireless Internet storehouses and “clouds”.
Multiple deployments to Southwest Asia, combined with pre-deployment training and post-deployment debriefings and reset, have kept Air Force families separated for much of the past decade. At the same time, low cost, increasing capability and near-universal Internet access have made real-time personal contact, with audio and video, routine – and laptop computers, tablets and smartphones part of every warfighter’s gear.
Recognizing the ubiquitous nature of social media among military personnel, the uniformed services have sought to adopt it as their own rather than merely trying to control its private use, although guidelines and regulations for personal Twitter, Facebook and other public platforms abound.
Most potentially harmful information revealed on such sites is unintended. A poster may not have realized a photo, taken with a smartphone and posted online, contains GPS coordinates of where it was taken, along with a date stamp, greatly simplifying targeting for the enemy. Military guidelines advise users, including family members and friends, not to post anything a servicemember would not speak aloud or want read by a commanding officer – or, worse, a terrorist or other enemy combatant.
The U.S. Air Force’s official social media site < http://www.af.mil/socialmedia.asp > is typical of DoD efforts. It lists more than 430 official USAF Facebook pages, from the Space Command Vice Commander to the Airmen’s Dining Facilities at Aviano Air Base, Italy; some 75 YouTube sites; more than 150 Twitter accounts; about 35 Flickr sites, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Joint Task Force Guantanamo, and 13 Air Force blogs.
“Social media is all about collaboration,” the site’s welcoming message proclaims. But it also is about presenting the Air Force side and perspective on whatever issues are dominating cyberspace at any given moment, ensuring servicemembers and their families know about and adhere to cyber “rules of conduct” and, most important of all, maintaining operations security (OPSEC).
Some restricted information is obvious, such as aircraft movements and basing, but the Air Force also warns against seemingly innocent posts, including when a servicemember is coming home or leaving. While of interest to family and friends, such information also can be used by adversaries to determine large scale deployment schedules.
While some might consider such information more critical with respect to ground forces or even Navy ship movements, the more an enemy knows about what aircraft are based where, with what weapons and for how long, the greater their odds of mounting a successful attack – or evading USAF aerial surveillance or strikes.
But too much personal information – the lifeblood of sites such as Facebook – also can endanger a servicemember’s family and private life at home.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations reported on a criminal network that advised its members “to use open source information found online to target Air Force officers and their families. The criminals recommended pulling geographic coordinates from the metadata of pictures posted online and using Google Maps to find the home addresses of the officers, as well as social networking site information to gather personal information about the victims.” Such information then could be used for everything from blackmail to kidnaping to assassinations.
In a handbook USAF Public Affairs published on “New Media and the Air Force” (in which they use the terms new media and social media), a list of “Top 10 Tips for New Media” concludes with: “The enemy is engaged in this battlespace and you must engage there as well.”
The handbook also quotes counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullin, a former advisor to NATO and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the nature of info-war: “In this battlefield, popular perceptions and rumor are more influential than facts and more powerful than a hundred tanks.” In short, the 21st Century social media version of “the pen is mightier than the sword”.
For the U.S. Air Force, those comprise a precept to be ingrained into every servicemember from Airman Basic to four-star Chief of Staff.