Defense Media Network

The Military Security Issues of Social Media

For most of its history, the U.S. military was a leader in technology development and adapting new commercial capabilities to combat and combat support applications. In the past two decades, however, DoD often has found itself playing catch-up in a technology evolution/revolution that has led to more new capabilities in 20 years than in the previous 200 combined.

Often overlooked through the 1990s was the impact on operations and security of personal electronics in the battle theater. Smaller, faster, cheaper devices enabled individual warfighters to carry pocket-sized devices with memory and computing power rivaling the mainframe-style computers that controlled the first space shuttle flight only three decades ago.

Beyond hardware has been an equally massive growth in personal communications and information sharing, beginning with the conversion of the military-developed ARPAnet into the civilian Internet and user-friendly World Wide Web in the early 1990s. The Internet and personal computing have since grown from unknown new concepts to global commodities with a speed never before seen by any technology with such overwhelming impact on civilization.

The rapid adoption of laptop and notebook computers, then smartphones able to connect to the Internet wirelessly from almost anywhere, provided mobility and 24-hour accessability. The 21st century added new online concepts, most notably blogging and social networks – MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. – that further expanded the ability to instantly share pictures, videos, documents, and messages with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The Apple iPad, Kindle and similar new handheld devices further expanded ease of access and information mobility, while high-resolution smartphone cameras, feeding YouTube, have all but eliminated privacy, for individuals or events.

After only two decades, the majority of personal, academic, industrial and governmental business is conducted in cyberspace. And in just the past year, Wikileaks has demonstrated the apparent ease with which even supposedly secure digital information can be acquired – and released – in vast quantities, with little or no regard for consequences.

This cyber explosion also has created a new generation of telecommuting workers and distance learning students. People who have never met in the physical world can collaborate, in real time, on anything from cupcake recipes to bomb-making, interactive game-playing to terrorist training, or from getting directions to a friend’s house to pinpointing locations to plant IEDs.

While slow to realize both the value and dangers of these developments, the military is now starting to use them for recruiting, training and disseminating new information to service members quickly and efficiently. But there also is a negative spur to military efforts.

In the past, captured soldiers were searched for useful documents and questioned – often tortured – for information. Any personal information gained from photos, letters or interrogation could be used to further pressure a prisoner to talk or, as global communications improved, for propaganda aimed at turning the other side’s population against the war or their own government.

The amount of information, personal and military, that can be obtained from a captured smartphone dwarfs anything even the most skilled interrogator or brutal torturer could ever hope to get from a captive. It could be used to call the captive’s family, then its camera used to show torture or execution. Or a more sophisticated interrogator might show a prisoner in apparent good health, receiving medical care, food, shelter – all designed to win over military families back home.

More recently, all an enemy has really needed is the captive’s personal webpage, which typically contains a wealth of information, pictures and links to friends and family. Or propaganda messages, photos, videos and links could be posted on the prisoner’s Facebook wall.

In this series of reports, Defense Media Network will look at the approach each service is taking – individually or in cooperation – in pursuit of the positive and to counter the negative aspects of social networking. They also will examine how this new reality is affecting the efforts and cyber security of other groups, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Veterans Affairs.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...