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Military social media policies seek solution to leverage benefits with risk 
By Deborah Grigsby Smith, Colorado National Guard Public Affairs 
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When the Department of Defense released its long-awaited policy on social media, the idea was to help clarify guidance on the official use of increasingly popular web-based networking sites – also known as Web 2.0.

The policy, which became effective Feb. 26, was designed to dispel ambiguity surrounding official endorsement of online social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  The nine-page “Directive-Type Memorandum 09-026” states it is now DOD policy the NIPRNET – or non-classified network – be “configured to provide Internet-based capabilities across all DOD components.”


The decision to open military networks to these sites comes at a time when there’s growing concern among leadership regarding both operational security as well as cybersecurity.

However, Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III, suggests in a recent DOD statement that the benefits – if handled properly – may outweigh the risks.

“This directive recognizes the importance of balancing appropriate security measures while maximizing the capabilities afforded by 21st century Internet tools,” said Lynn.

Prior to the release, individual services, as well as other DOD components, were writing and implementing their own policies. Unfortunately, there was little standardization or consistency across the board. For users it seemed to cause much more confusion than it did clarification. For example, some components could access Twitter, but not Facebook. Others could only view YouTube.

Some components prohibited social media altogether.

However, while DOD leadership and security experts now weigh the benefits against the risks of social media, commanders and public affairs officers are working hard to define and implement local guidance that is both practical and firmly aligned with the wishes of DOD.

Sounds cool, huh?

Well, curb the enthusiasm because DOD’s new policy doesn’t exactly open the floodgates entirely.

It has some pretty powerful built-in caveats executable at the local level. For starters, all sites associated with gambling, pornography and hate crimes are still prohibited from government computers. Local commanders are also able to temporarily suspend network access to social media sites for both security as well as bandwidth concerns.

“Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are rapidly changing the way we work, engage with our Soldiers, Airmen, and families. It also helps us leverage the power of our strategic partners at the community, state and national level,” said Maj. Elena O’Bryan, Colorado National Guard State Public Affairs Officer. “While social media tools bring with them a whole new world of opportunity, they also evoke a whole new world of responsibility as it enables the user – in short – to enter into a conversation with the entire world.”

But could social media in the military put operational security, as well as personnel at risk?

Lt. Gen William B. Caldwell, the current commander, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, as well as, commanding general, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, suggests the operational risks from social media are really no different than any other operational risk commanders already face.

“Operational security is an enduring concern for military operations,” explained Caldwell in a recent interview with IO Sphere, the professional journal of joint information operations published by the Joint Information Operations Warfare Command in San Antonio, Texas.

“However, we cannot take counsel of our fears at the expense of new media applications. As always, we must strike a balance between caution and engagement,” he continued. “As new technologies continue to emerge, there will be even more challenges to the risk-benefit balance. If we surrender to our fears, we surrender a big chunk of the high media ground. Commanders accept risk in any operation. We are not talking about rejection of risk, but rather about the parameters of the risk, we’re willing to accept. With the emphasis, senior leaders are placing on Web 2.0, I remain confident the Army will find the proper balance.”

So, is social media compatible with the military?

Col. Dana M. Capozzella, commander of the Colorado Army National Guard says yes.

“Yes, in a limited and monitored capacity,” said Capozzella via e-mail. “We must never compromise our security for ease of communication. At the same time, we need to understand and accept that this is the new way people are communicating and staying connected.”

Many well-known and high-ranking DOD leaders have taken the social media plunge themselves, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. You can join him and the 19,500 people who follow himon Twitter@thejointstaff. Or check in on General Odierno, commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/RayOdierno. Odierno has close to 9,000 fans.

Even Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, has become a mover and shaker across the “Twitterverse” these days. Follow and connect with him on Twitter@ChiefNGB.

McKinley, who penned an article late last year in “The Federal Times” entitled “Why I Tweet,” speaks frankly about how and why he embraces the wonders of Web 2.0. The chief suggests the humble 140-character tweet may soon evolve into the new commander’s coin.

When I'm traveling, I give out a lot of coins to Soldiers and Airmen who demonstrate excellence,” he said. “For the new generation, a tweet is the electronic equivalent of that coin publicly recognizing their achievements in front of people who matter to them: their followers.”

McKinley also adds that Twitter is an excellent way to generate excitement among reporters and bloggers.

“I'll tweet about a meeting with a foreign visitor, or an ongoing domestic support mission, or an upcoming event,” he continued. “The public affairs teams in my office and in the various states, as well as the traditional media and bloggers that follow me, often pick up these stories and push them out as news.”

But again, how can operational risks be reduced?

According to security experts, one the most effective
and inexpensivemeans to mitigate operational security risk is discretion. That, coupled with proper oversight, and good judgment are the first lines of defense.

“It is unfortunate that privacy and operational security issues currently lag behind advancing technology,” said Harley Rinerson, chief information officer, Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “However, simply understanding how to properly useas well as the global implicationsof using social media in the work place is a good start.”

Rinerson goes on to suggest that the old fashion OPSEC model isand should bevery much alive, even in a world driven by near-real time communication.

“So the technology has changed,” he quipped, “but the information our adversaries want pretty much remains the same. Never post anything that falls within what’s called PII or personally identifiable information: things like addresses, phone numbers, and detailed travel itineraries; also any information that might help an adversary build a more complete picture of force structure and force structure procedures such as training schedules, deployment dates and points of departure.”

Currently, the promise of social media for the Colorado National Guard is still under evaluation by senior leadership and technology experts. A draft policy has been prepared to provide guidance to all Colorado Guardsmen on the responsible use of this this capability, and is currently under staff review. “Social media could lead to better informed Soldiers and Airmen as they will be able to access information concerning benefits in a medium that appeals to the younger generation,” concluded Capozzella. “Our younger Guardsmen and women are comfortable and adept at navigating in this medium [social media] – we just need to catch up.”