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Semper Fi: Why the Marine Social Media Ban May Not Go Far Enough

An immediate ban on commercial social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace went into effect for all Marine Corps personnel using the unclassified Marine Corps Enterprise Network (MCEN) NIPRNET this past Monday. This ban does not affect the personal use of social media by Marines on their own private computers or wired devices.

But perhaps it should.

The ban went into effect -- according to the memo -- because 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." The stated concern is that Marines accessing these open social networks from Marine Corps computers could expose the MCEN to security breaches and attacks that could threaten to disrupt or intercept Marine communications. Further, that information data-mined from social networks could also be used to compromise both operational security and personal security is also a possibility.

While this may be an accurate claim, MCEN security already effectively blocks social network access according to officials. The reason for the ban is to put a waiver system in place to grant access to Marines who may need specific access to social media sites to perform their duties. Examples of those exceptions would include the Marines that operate the USMC Twitter site, the Marine Corps Facebook site, and the Marine Corps MySpace site.

But if a ban on social media on official Marine computer systems is essential for hardening network security and limiting potential intrusion and infiltration, wouldn't a complete ban including personal computers and wireless devices also make a great deal of sense?

The use of social networks puts individual Marines -- or for that matter, other servicemen -- at risk for compromising the operational security of their units and possibly even their own personal security.

Data-mining software and techniques in the hands of adversaries (or for that matter, allies) can potentially be configured to scour social media networks and selectively filter servicemen by information they submit. This includes not only individual personal information (which we'll examine in more detail in a moment), but also information that can indicate unit status, deployment orders, morale, and even the result of enemy contacts.

While the scandal over his articles in the New Republic made U.S. Army soldier Scott Beauchamp the center of a military investigation that eventually led to his articles losing the support of the magazine, the first punishment the private received for his online activity was the result of his breaking operational security and announcing his unit's exact deployment date to Iraq on his personal blog.

Other blogs have also provided vital information about how our soldiers function during wartime, without the direct threat of violating operational security. While military blogs and social media sites operated by servicemen can give civilians an entirely new appreciation for the experiences of our servicemen, they can reveal information about weaponry, tactics, and the mindset of our soldiers as they recall events upon reflection after battle.

One of the most fascinating military blogs during 2004-2005 was the blog of U.S. Army Silver Star tanker Neil Prakash, Armor Geddon. Prakash's detailed blog entries were not posted until after the battles he fought in were history, but the same thoroughness and eye for detail that made his site such a fascinating read could also potentially be gleaned for information by potential opponents accessing the tactics, strengths, and weaknesses not just of the tankers, but of the enemy tactics that failed against American forces.

More recently, the ability of wireless media devices such as smart phones, and the explosive growth of micro-blogging sites like Twitter, have made real-time information gathering efforts by opposing forces a potential threat in current and future conflicts.

Consider, if you will, the social media storm that arose recently as the result of the rigged elections in Iran. Now imagine a future conflict where soldiers with iPhones and BlackBerrys twittered the day's events within hours of their last mission, posting photos or video to FacebookFlickr, LiveLeak or YouTube. While such postings could seem innocuous to the soldiers posting information, the images and stories they post could reveal their locations, their speed of advance, their unit disposition, and other key military information vital to enemy planners that may otherwise be hampered by the fog of war.

A strong argument can be made that a total ban on social media may be warranted when we enter our next future conflict in order to preemptively shut down this kind of information leakage.

While individual servicemen should not have to give up their relationships with family and friends, and social networking sites can give deployed servicepeople a point of contact with the folks back home, social networks can threaten unit security as well as personal security. The obvious threat of these sites to expose servicemen to phishing and hackers for identity theft purposes is the same as it is for civilians, but foreign deployments and difficulty conducting business from remote locations can make it difficult for servicemen to battle identity theft, making them an excellent target for scammers.

In less likely but far more serious circumstances, social networks have played a role in placing lives in danger. Social relationships established on Craigslist and MySpace have led to homicides, and a relationship status change on Facebook led to murder. Such tragic events are obviously rare even in the civilian world, but military authorities do worry about risks to the personal security of their servicemen and women both on and off post. As a result, they've established bans on what they deem to be unsafe physical locations. It seems only logical that such a ban might be extended to online locations as well if they think such activity could lead to potentially dangerous contacts offline.

The on-again, off-again relationship between the military and Web-based social media will continue, and while one can certainly understand why servicemen and women desire to use social networking to keep in touch with those they love, the military's desire to protect itself from the threats raised by social media outweighs the comforts the online contact provides.