When a U.S. soldier was captured by insurgents in Afghanistan, the Army quickly realized his personal Facebook page contained information his captors could use in psychological torture. When apprised of the situation, Facebook immediately responded to the Army’s request to take the page down.
However, they would not take down his wife’s page, to which his was linked, on grounds she, unlike her captive husband, was able to take her page down herself, and it would violate her rights for Facebook to do so. Unfortunately, she was too distraught to take the necessary action as quickly as the Army wanted.
According to Maj. Juanita Chang, director of the Army Public Affairs Online and Social Media Division, neither page mattered in the end – the soldier was executed without his captors apparently ever accessing either site. Nonetheless, the situation reinforced the Army’s determination to better inform their warfighters, commanders and public affairs officers about the potential dangers of putting too much information online.
“Our adversaries are trolling social networks, blogs and forums, trying to find sensitive information they can use about our military goals and objectives,” warned former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston. “Therefore, it is imperative that all soldiers and family members understand the importance of practicing good operations security measures.”
In some cases, the technology of the Internet may reveal more than an individual realizes. A soldier putting a picture of his tent online for his parents may not realize geo-tagging would enable an enemy to precisely target that site for attack. Nor are all the hazards overseas; a soldier posting his deployment date online might as well put a sign in the front yard reading, “No one’s going to be home for months, so steal what you want,” Chang added.
The technology is new, the Army says, but the rule remains the same as a famous World War II poster: “The Enemy is listening. He wants to know what you know. KEEP IT TO YOURSELF.” Except today, the enemy is reading social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, watching videos, listening to audio posts, checking GPS tags, even “following” soldiers online.
“The Army is always working to protect itself against security breaches, but with new technologies come new risks. Today, more than ever, it is vitally important that Army leaders, soldiers and Army civilians understand what kind of data they are broadcasting and what they can do to protect themselves and their families,” advised the Army Handbook on Social Media, released in January 2011.
“Social media is an opportunity to instantly reach out and connect, regardless of time, space or distance. The Army encourages members of the Army family to use social media to connect and tell their stories, but it also advises everyone to do this in a safe and secure manner.”
At the same time, Chang’s small contingent of three people is working hard to use social media on the Army’s behalf, working with dozens of individual units and commanders worldwide to set up and maintain their own Facebook and Flickr pages and Twitter accounts (see a complete directory at http://www.army.mil/media/socialmedia/) and creating smartphone apps.
“Websites also can be used to provide current information to media and the public from areas neither can access,” she said, citing Facebook postings during the Fort Hood shootings as an example. “A Wikipedia entry entitled ‘Fort Hood shooting’ was up within two hours. Social media became a key place to correct the record and provide information.”
The majority of the Army is in the 18-to-24 age bracket – what Chang calls “digital natives,” for whom the Internet and social media have always been primary sources of information and communication. Which also is why the Army considers it important for senior leaders to take an active role online, communicating with their troops, the media and the public.
“The Army is using traditional and emerging media to communicate to its global audience so information reaches everyone in the way they like to receive it,” she concludes.