No GPS-Enabled Devices on Deployments, Pentagon Rules After Risk Assessment

A team of service members passes another team as they run laps around the United States Forces - Afghanistan headquarters during Marne Week on Nov. 14 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elizabeth White)

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Defense Department is banning service members from possessing devices that contain any sort of GPS function on deployments due to “potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission.”

At the beginning of the year, Defense Secretary Jame Mattis ordered a review of whether to ban cell phones or other electronic devices from the Pentagon and other U.S. military installations after reports that apps were revealing sensitive locations of U.S. service members.

Data from users of fitness trackers such as Fitbit was published in a global heat map by Strava, on which fellow runners can share routes. This also ended up highlighting locations of covert military installations and intelligence outposts, as the only runners using the fitness apps in many remote locations are foreigners.

The November 2017 map highlighted routes accumulated from more than 3 trillion individual GPS data points. As U.S. personnel turn on their fitness apps for daily runs, this has ended up clearly identifying mappable outposts from Syria to Djibouti to Afghanistan.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan issued a memo last week declaring that effective immediately Defense Department personnel are “prohibited from using geolocation features and functionality on government and nongovernment-issued devices, applications and services while in locations designated as operational areas,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Robert Manning III described the directive.

Manning added that the “rapidly evolving market of devices, applications and services with geolocation capabilities presents a significant risk to the Department of Defense personnel on and off duty, and to our military operations globally.”

Commanders will make judgment calls on implementing the policy and only after passing a risk assessment evaluation will exceptions to the rule be granted.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in February that the review was also “not just about the Pentagon,” but will take into account electronics rules “across the DoD enterprise.”

“That heat map brought up a potential vulnerability,” White explained. “So he’s taking a comprehensive look at our security measures, what we can do, mitigating factors, and of course he will also consider the concerns of the workforce.”

Pressed on what the specific threat is from employees possessing such devices, White replied, “You have to also consider the fact that we have been attacked. Bases have been attacked. Information is power and our adversaries have used information to plan attacks against us.”

After the reports of the Strava map came out, users in online jihadist forums were discussing using the open-source information to plan strikes.