Army allows social media — warily

Security risks keep sites under suspicion

The ability to easily share information through social-media tools is the power of the emerging technology — and also the threat.

The Army is one organization that has approached the tools with caution. And until May, it banned them from Army bases and campuses because of concerns about users having the power to say what they want, post the pictures they want and connect with whom they want using Web 2.0 tools. But a May 18 order from the 93rd and 106th Signal Brigades orders Army bases and campuses in the continental United States to provide access to five social-media sites.

An Army official said the order is an attempt to standardize Web filtering at Army installations.

Leaders’ concerns about the technology are legitimate, but young soldiers were likely finding a way around the old policy anyway, said Ray Vaughn, a professor of computer science and engineering at Mississippi State University and a retired Army colonel.

“The primary concern I would have is not associated with the security issue,” he said. “It’s more about putting a temptation in front of soldiers who are supposed to be performing a duty function. Instead, they may spend significant amounts of time updating Facebook, socializing on the Web and be distracted from their duties.”

Posting sensitive or embarrassing photos and information from combat zones is another risk, Vaughn said.

Many users of social-media tools do not understand that anything they post is available to the entire world, regardless of their privacy settings, said Leslie Ann Reis, an assistant professor of law and director of the John Marshall Law School's Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law.

“Regardless of how you set your privacy settings, your friends can still republish information,” Reis said. “So any information that is published gets published to the world, and that might include information that you might think is innocuous but might, in the case of a service person, give away a location or strategy.”

Despite the security risks, Army officials are under a lot of pressure to allow social media because so many people depend on it as the primary way to stay in touch with friends and family, Reis said.

The Army and other federal agencies considering similar policies should include education as part of allowing access to social media, she said.

“It is about getting users to understand the ramifications of posting certain personal information, whether that is location or activities that could be harmful in a military sense,” Reis said. “If agencies do not provide appropriate information to users about taking responsibility for their own posts, then that is an incomplete policy.”

The May order limits the allowed sites to Facebook, del.icio.us, Flickr, Twitter and Vimeo.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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