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When it comes to social media, military is anything but uniform

By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 6, 2009

WASHINGTON — Marines can’t use Twitter or Facebook on duty, but soldiers and sailors can. For airmen, it depends on the base.

As for YouTube, the Air Force has created its own channel — which can’t be accessed from work computers.

Despite the popularity of social networking Web sites and the hard-sell push by some Pentagon officials for the military to embrace these new communication tools, the Defense Department’s policy toward the sites is at best improvised.

The future of social networking in the military is caught up in a tussle between those pushing for open communication and those charged with guarding the security of the networks.

"There’s no strategy. No one can agree," said Mark Drapeau, a fellow at the National Defense University who recently co-published a paper on the topic.

This has led to a bad case of social networking schizophrenia. While some defense officials have been establishing a presence in the social networking world with blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, others have been shutting down access to those very sites, claiming the security risk is just too high.

For example, the Air Force — which has been pushing for all airmen to participate in social media and championing the catchphrase "every airman is a communicator" — created its own channel on YouTube, called BlueTube. Airmen, however, can’t access this page from their work computers because the DOD has an across the board ban on YouTube.

Two years ago, the DOD banned that site along with MySpace and 11 others, saying those sites could compromise security and cause bandwidth issues for the network.

There are also the vast discrepancies among the different branches.

A few months ago, the Army released a standardized policy for Web site use that specifically called for Twitter and Facebook to be accessible to soldiers. Indeed, Army generals blog from Iraq and hold online chats with troops.

The Marine Corps, on the other hand, has done the opposite. This week it formalized a long-standing policy of banning social media sites, saying the "very nature of social networking sites creates a larger attack and exploitation window, exposes unnecessary information to adversaries and provides an easy conduit for information leakage."

Commenting on the different levels of security concern among the services, Drapeau remarked dryly that it isn’t clear why some DOD computers were more susceptible to security breaches than others.

A recently announced Pentagon review is likely to bring policies in line across the services, with DOD policy trumping prior decisions by individual branches, press secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday.

For the most part, use of social media has been a hodge-podge across the government, with isolated pilot projects done at the lower levels, according to a recently released National Defense University paper called "Social Software and National Security: An Initial Net Assessment," co-written by Drapeau and Linton Wells.

The lack of a top-down structure has made it "unclear in many cases who, what, when, where, why, and how such tools should be used while at work, and while not at work. This leads to confusion and inconsistencies," the paper stated.

In an internal message last month, David Jackson, director of the Defense Media Activity, described visiting overseas detachments and finding himself unable to access Twitter and Facebook and some of his favorite blogs.

"I’m hopeful that there will be some changes that will allow the DoD users that we serve to access, and interact with, the content that we have been putting on these kinds of sites," Jackson said in the message. "We all understand the need for information security. But at a time when more and more people, particularly young people, are using social media, we at DMA need to not only attract them to our sites, but we also need to go to theirs."

The DOD stayed relatively quiet on an overarching policy for the past two years as use of social media exploded, but is now forcing both the security and communication advocates to the table.

Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn has set a Sept. 30 deadline to hash out the issues and decide how the DOD will move forward.

In a memo issued last Friday, Lynn said that although social networking sites "have rapidly emerged as integral tools in day-to-day operations across the DOD," there are also "implementation challenges and operations risks that must be understood and mitigated."

Wells, a National Defense University professor, said both sides have a valid point.

"There is no doubt there are really serious security risks associated with social software," he said, pointing to a hackers conference last year that focused on exploiting its weaknesses. "At the same time, this is a really powerful force out there in the world, and whether you like it or not other people are going to be using this. It’s going to happen. So the question is: at a minimum how do we educate our people in the responsible use of this?"

Jack Holt, senior strategist at the Pentagon for emerging media, said the DOD, particularly under the new administration, is "realizing this is more than just a passing fad and is a new dynamic in the way people communicate and the way they choose to inform themselves. We’re seeing more and more that it’s important to be involved in that conversation."

Until now all the different elements have been working without much collaboration.

"Security has been in their stove pipe, communication in their stove pipe, policy in their stove pipe," Holt said. "[Social networking] is cross-cutting. When you step into someone else’s territory you play by their rules. But this is more of a horizontal domain."

Wells said it’s Draconian to simply ban the sites.

"It’s really easy to say ‘no,’ but what’s the downside?" he said. "This is not just static, and we will start falling behind. We have to have ways to engage in this space."


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