DOD rethinks social-media access

Security, other concerns worry officials

With concerns mounting over security and management, the Defense Department is reevaluating its policies on use of social media tools. Sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, once banned from DOD use, now play a major role for government and military public relations and recruiting. However, the threat of security breaches stemming from wide-open access could lessen Web 2.0’s appeal.

U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the use of the dot-mil network, has launched a review of the safety of the sites. The command acknowledged in media reports last week that it was doing so, but has otherwise remained mum on the topic.

“There certainly are security concerns associated with social networking. But it would be a step back to ban social networks completely,” said information technology security expert Rohyt Belani, a consultant and instructor at Carnegie-Mellon University. “I think there is a middle ground that can be reached.”

Security fears largely center on the familiar possibility of hackers infiltrating networks with sensitive information, particularly via phishing scams that dupe computer users into downloading viruses, clicking links to malware or entering secure information. But Web 2.0 brings an additional concern: People sharing too much information online, such as the case of incoming British intelligence chief John Sawers, whose wife posted personal information and photos on Facebook that have landed Sawers in serious hot water.

“People are not aware of the ramifications of putting up all of this personal information without privacy settings,” said Belani, who advocates proper training for the safe use of social networks. “But there are ways to use social media safely and effectively.”

“As a retired Army colonel and a Ph.D. in computer science, I’m really glad I’m not the one that has to deal with this problem,” said Ray Vaughn, a professor of computer science and engineering at Mississippi State University. “I’m more concerned with why the DOD feels a need to allow unfettered access to such sites over dot-mil networks. I would be concerned about the use of military computers for personal social networking.”

Still, despite the serious worries, social media has become a force to be reckoned with. Since the 2007 reversal of an initial ban on social networking sites, military and government have become deeply entrenched in social media tools, with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook fans of various military and government outfits. And in June the Army ordered all U.S. bases allow Facebook access.

“I would not want to see DOD restrict the use of such sites for organized and monitored use as a communication mechanism. Such sites can be used to recruit or broadcast useful information to constituency groups. But these kinds of activities can be done in a controlled, accountable, and planned manner,” Vaughn added.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

Reader Comments

Wed, Aug 5, 2009 Jason Hull Charlottesville, VA

COL Vaughn is heading in the right direction with his thinking, but misses two key points: 1) breaches of security are going to happen no matter how hard the military tries to prevent them, and trying to prevent a social media black swan negates the benefits, and 2) we WANT our soldiers telling the military story--banning social media participation makes it more difficult. Soldiers are going to use social media anyway, so we may as well make sure it's occurring in a controlled environment so we know what's being said. http://www.opensourceconnections.com/2009/08/04/5-reasons-the-marines-shouldnt-ban-social-networking/

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