How to avoid turning OpSec into OopsSec
"On Wednesday, we are cleaning up (the village). Today - arrest. On Thursday, God willing, we will be home," the Israeli soldier posted on Facebook just before a raid was to take place.
The operation was canceled after other soldiers reported the posting, CNN reported, and the soldier was sentenced to 10 days in prison plus loss of combat postings. You have to wonder if that was his goal from the start.
It came just days after the U.S. military announced that it would allow social media on non-classified Defense Department computers - a policy that largely affirmed what had been going on in most branches anyway. It's a move that not everyone in the military is wild about.
"I am still having a hard time not thinking of social networking sites as the work of the devil. Just like credit cards and cell phones it is not the technology that is bad but how they are used or what they are use for that is bad. People spill just as much information on a cell phone in the mall as they do on their personal web page," a commenter wrote on an Air Force story last summer as the military discussed the policy.
If the commenter thought things were bad then, just wait until location-based social media really catch fire. "Gomer Pile checked in at Fallujah." "Beetle Bailey just became mayor of Marjah."
The concerns might be a bit overblown. A 2006 study found only 28 security violations on independent military blogs over the course of a year but 1,800 violations on official military sites. Of course, that was before everyone and his sister had Facebook accounts.
Nevertheless the concerns are real, particularly in a day when computing power is cheap and data-mining capabilities are spreading. Everyone connected closely to the U.S. military, at least, is aware of all that. It's hard to be on post for more than a day or so without seeing a sign reminding you to "Think OpSec" - Operations Security.
The guidelines are hammered into our heads: Don't post when people are leaving, exact locations of where they're going or when they'll be coming back. Don't post "I haven't heard from so-and-so for XXX number of days" or "So and so told me she's going to be gone on an important mission for XXX days." In some circumstances, it's inappropriate to even post unit information. Above all, don't assume the enemy isn't interested in information about you. Enough crumbs scattered across the net can add up to a whole cookie.
I'm not worried about one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines pulling a lamebrain act like the Israeli did - the numbers are on their side based on the 2006 study, plus why would they want to put their own lives or the lives of colleagues at risk?
Having access to social media is important during deployment especially. Families can stay in touch via Facebook or exchange videos via private YouTube postings - though it still would be illegal for military personnel to film certain things.
I am worried, though, about people a few steps removed - friends or those outside the immediate family - who don't or won't understand even after they're told. Maybe it's airheadedness or maybe it's some kind of sick attention-seeking tendency, but I've seen information posted that definitely violates guidelines. It makes my blood boil.
Of course, you could argue that the problem begins with military members sharing information and to a certain extent that's true. Friends and family can't post what they don't know to begin with. But that issue has nothing to do with social media - it dates back to the "Loose Lips Sink Ships" days.
Social media does ensure that in a modern war, information can travel that world at the speed of a pixel. In cases where it's information that shouldn't be made public, the violators need to be ordered to remove it just as quickly - punished, too, if the violation is serious enough or repeated often enough.
But there's no need to punish in advance and deprive military personnel of valuable personal and professional tools. Generals blog. Army posts have Facebook pages. It's all a modern reality, and now the military has a social media policy that addresses that.
Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.