Marines' social-media ban is bad for morale

The ban might demoralize troops more than it improves security

A battle rages at the Pentagon -- not about strategy in Iraq or Afghanistan but whether U.S. military personnel should be allowed to use social-networking Web sites such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook on the Defense Department’s unclassified computer networks. Citing security concerns, the Marine Corps has formally prohibited personnel from accessing any of those sites using military resources. Other parts of DOD are considering similar action.

The ban is at odds with realities of the 21st-century military and, instead of keeping warfighters safer, might hinder the development of an information-sharing culture in the military while demoralizing our troops.

In its new policy, the Marines labeled Facebook, Twitter and MySpace “a proven haven for malicious actors and content,” contending that their use “exposes unnecessary information to adversaries and provides an easy conduit for information leakage.” The policy does not ban Marine Corps personnel from having accounts but prohibits them from accessing the sites via the Marines’ Internet connection.

To the operational and communications security specialists in the military, the tremendous amount of communication from the battlefield to the Internet is worrisome. Keeping a lid on plans, tactics and other closely held information is a nightmare — particularly when social-media sites make it so easy and convenient to share information. What if a warfighter accidentally compromises a mission by posting his location on Facebook or shares a photo that jeopardizes the safety of his comrades?

Those are legitimate concerns, but the Marines’ ban, however well-intended, is misdirected. Even with the new policy, military personnel can still access the Web for other purposes at work and, once off the job or off duty, log on to Facebook and other social media to share information. By contrast, the benefits of social media are considerable, particularly for personnel who are continents away from their loved ones.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence has encouraged members of the United Kingdom’s armed forces to use social media to keep the public — such as friends and family — informed, while being mindful of operational security. Our own chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has opined regarding social media, “Obviously, we need to find the right balance between security and transparency. We are working on that. But am I still going to tweet? You bet.”

Cybersecurity concerns should not be underestimated, but just asking the troops to get off Twitter and Facebook isn’t enough. A better alternative is to educate our military personnel about social media and discuss security concerns.

If DOD wants nearly complete cybersecurity for those men and women, then the department should ask them to unplug from the Internet, leave the laptops at home and jettison all those information tools our troops are using to do their jobs better because each one of them carries a security risk. As the Pentagon’s social-media czar, Price Floyd, told Wired magazine, “What we can’t do is let security concerns trump doing business.”

A ban of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace on the Marine Corps’ unclassified networks is a step in the wrong direction.

About the Author

Chris Bronk is a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an adjunct instructor of computer science at Rice. He previously served as a Foreign Service Officer and was assigned to the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.

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Reader comments

Mon, Nov 2, 2009

I am concerned that many people missed the real point of this article. The young military members don't need to access Facebook or Myspace from their government issued computers. It is readily available from the cell phones they already carry every where with them. They already tweet and update their Facebook and Myspace pages regularly.

Fri, Oct 9, 2009 James Alcasid DC

USMC gets it right, social networks are not mission critical endeavors for use with military IT resources. I think the author's statements are bit misguided in that factors such as OPSEC go out the door when using such sites that encourage you to share as much as possible. Social network sites are a goldmine of intel. Did we forget that enemies foreign and domestic know how to use computers too?

Mon, Sep 28, 2009 LtCol USMC Eastern NC

Fortunately, the Marine Corps is not full of whining wussies who would decide to cry and moan about not accessing facebook, twitter, etc. If the grunts living on the ville in a small patrol base don't have it, then the rest of us can live without it. We know the difference between nice-to-have and need-to-have. Semper Fi, Devil-dogs!

Mon, Sep 28, 2009

You're missing the point. The sites cannot be accessed via the military networks but thats not to say they cannot be accessed period. If there is another way to access the social networkiing sites they will be accessed (USO?. DoD needs to set up their own social networking site and allow mil members to sponsor their friends and family etc. DoD has to authorize users and can monitor whats out there, Many corporations have their own social networking sites and see the value in them enough to pay for them.

Fri, Sep 25, 2009

Does the assembly line worker at GM surf the internet while manufacturing new cars? Does your priest or rabbi tweet while conducting a mass? I think you know the answers. They have a mission to accomplish, and so do the DOD military and civilan personnel. You would not expect DOD personnel to chat on the phone for two solid hours so why would it be OK to surf facebook for two hours? The other thing to remember, don't expect to eliminate risk on IT systems, but you can reduce the risk -- eliminate ANY web surfing that is not related to the mission. If DOD personnel have free time to surf the internet the taxpayer is not being served.

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