By Stuart Tiffen
Military commanders are coming to terms with the fact that most of their troops use social networking sites like Facebook. Some are adopting policies attempting to stave off inadvertent security breaches.
Secrecy has been a central tenet of warfare since Sun Tzu wrote "The Art of War" in the sixth century: "O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy's fate in our hands."
In the World Wide Web's short history as a conduit and vessel of knowledge, its ability to keep secrets has not been among its strongest qualities. Indeed, the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has famously been hailed for creating more news scoops than the Washington Post has in the past 30 years.
But beyond the efforts of those seeking to uncover secrets, military forces have also had to contend with the unwitting efforts of their own members inadvertently giving away classified information online.
Status update regret
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was recently forced to scrap a mission after a soldier posted details about it on his Facebook page, the Jerusalem Post reported in March. The soldier was jailed for 10 days and kicked out of his unit, while the Israeli military kicked off a major education and oversight effort.
The IDF created a new intelligence unit to monitor the troops' Facebook, MySpace and Twitter activity, and also ordered some officers to undergo polygraph tests to ensure they weren't leaking information to the press, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, security risks such as these, other military forces are abandoning their earlier draconian responses to social networking websites, in favor of more educational techniques.
The US military has long been making noise and movements towards a more open Internet presence. Department of Defense (DoD) services have had Flickr, YouTube and Facebook accounts for years, having discovered the value of running public affairs campaigns and recruitment through these growing online communities.
Throughout 2009 the DoD released statements about an upcoming social media hub and its public affairs teams published guidelines for social media use. But for the troops, access to websites such as Facebook, Twitter or blogs from their work computers was blocked.
One instruction from the United States Air Force, AFI35-101, lays down the law for the troops: "Specifically, each Air Force member or employee is responsible for obtaining the necessary review and clearance … before releasing any proposed statement, text or imagery to the public. This includes any digital products being loaded on an unrestricted website."
Concern for damaging public perception brought about by troops making statements in the public sphere has been a sticking point for the military. But in an era when mass publication and syndication is no longer expressly the domain of the media, commanders have had to realign their policies.
Internet for everyone
The DoD released a memorandum in February directing bases to open their networks for access to social media and other web-based tools, such as blogs and email clients that had previously been blocked.
The public message is that the new openness is for the benefit of the personnel.
"The Air Force views the use of social media sites as a positive way to communicate and conduct business," General C. Robert Kehler, commander in the Air Force Space Command, said on the official USAF website. "Providing more open access will allow the Air Force to communicate more effectively to all Air Force personnel, their families and external audiences."
Professor Erin Sahlstein at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, agrees that the access to social media helps military families.
"Service members can stay in touch more frequently with their family and friends, which helps maintain their relationships with folks back home and gives them a connection to normal life," Sahlstein said.
"They get to hear about and share trivial information of their everyday lives as well as unpredictable events that may require social support."
Among the ranks, however, the reaction to the new access has been mixed.
"So long, productivity! Hooray Facebook and Hotmail!" wrote one Air Force member from his work computer shortly after the system was opened up at the beginning of May.
"I am literally at work, next to classified material posting this - what a great move Air Force!!" was another airman's reaction on Facebook.
But some saw it more positively. "I am too busy to surf [social media sites] too much. I am sure Marines are online all day. At times, it's the only way to communicate when military means are down," one US Marine admitted.
In the UK, the Ministry of Defense took a proactive approach to social media for the troops last summer. Its online engagement guidelines and other policies encourage troops to interact online. Along with reminders to "maintain security" and "think about reputation" the Ministry of Defense delivers a friendlier message, "Enjoy yourself - You have a great story to tell, and are the best person to tell it."
British soldiers are even being asked to create social media presences as part of their official duties, in order to explain their work to the public, the ministry's website said.
"It's about training and educating and advising our people - just like you don't talk about certain things down the pub, likewise you shouldn't talk about certain things online," Robin Riley, the head of online engagement, was quoted as saying.
Hands off approach
In Germany, there have been few similar revelations regarding social networking websites. The Bundeswehr has never dictated the proper use of online platforms. "We have no written policy like the US and the British have," spokesman Commander Klaus Tautges told Deutsche Welle.
Instead, the soldiers of the Bundeswehr are bound by the overarching Soldatengesetz, the statute dictating the rights and responsibilities of the German military members. "Soldiers are legally obligated to have discretion when speaking about duty-related issues and to maintain the reputation of the Bundeswehr in public," Tautges said.
With only a few exceptions, the German military has managed not to abuse the trust placed in it by its leaders. Access to social media websites is not usually allowed on duty computers, except in morale and welfare centers in deployed locations.
"We try to educate but not to regulate, so they can use these networks carefully and with respect," Tautges said.
Teach a man to tweet
Education seems to be the compromise that most military forces are embracing, backed up by laws such as the Soldatengesetz in Germany and the Uniform Code of Military Justice in the US.
A pamphlet published by the US Air Force provides a list of tips for airmen using social media:
Don't give away classified information. Don't lie: credibility is critical, without it no one cares what you have to say. Use common sense - if you wouldn't say it front of your mother, don't say it online.
The most important lesson to many soldiers, however, is the final tip: The enemy is engaged in this battle space, you must engage there as well.