DOD is caught in the Web 2.0

Military officials name operational concerns as their reason for blocking popular sites

Defense Department memo on restricting access to social networking sites

The Defense Department just doesn’t get Web 2.0.

Two weeks ago, the Army caused a stir with a new policy about soldiers’ blogging rights. Now DOD officials have blocked access through the military network to 13 social-networking sites, including YouTube and MySpace, citing bandwidth and security concerns. Rear Adm. Elizabeth Hight, vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, said DOD could block more sites as it does further network analysis.

Hight said DOD’s decision to block access has nothing to do with content and is all about preserving bandwidth and increasing security. But security experts say DOD’s recent policy decisions show a lack of understanding about how people communicate in the 21st century.

“Web 2.0 is not just real-time communication but [is] the capacity for many people to create things together,” said Leslie Harris, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. DOD’s policy “does not seek to balance the value of the Internet on the lives of the soldiers.”

Hight defended the new policy by saying that many communication tools, including a new video e-mail service, are available through the Army Knowledge Online (AKO). Such tools will also be offered to service members through the new Defense Knowledge Online (DKO) Web portal in 2009.

“Soldiers are authorized 50M of space for e-mail storage and 50 more megabytes of space on team sites,” said Leta Deyerle, public affairs specialist for AKO/DKO. Those military sites also have security features that many public sites lack, she said.

Hight added that service members can go to the public Internet and use social-networking sites whenever they choose. DOD readily makes commercial Web access points available for warfighters worldwide, usually at no cost, she said.

However, those options haven’t kept service members from using military computers to visit social-networking sites, as DOD discovered when officials conducted a network use analysis during the past six to nine months. Hight said warfighters’ use of those sites has grown, and DOD officials are concerned that such activity will take up bandwidth needed for combat operations.

“This type of technology is a bandwidth hog compared to text, and that is a huge challenge for us,” Hight said. “It’s hard to determine how much bandwidth it is using because we have 5 million computers worldwide.”

While DOD worries about social networking, other agencies are experimenting with it.

An official at the Homeland Security Department, who requested anonymity, said DHS has used YouTube-like technology for recruiting, and it is looking for more ways to expand its use.

At the General Services Administration, officials conducted a trial program by placing one of its public service videos on the YouTube site, an agency spokeswoman said.

And in some parts of DOD, such as recruiting commands, officials have placed videos on YouTube and created MySpace pages to attract potential service

“Web 2.0 is an indication of the growing needs for information sharing,” said retired Gen. Harry Raduege, a former DISA director and now chairman of Deloitte  and Touche’s Center for Network Innovation. “A lot of this [concern] is [about] inadvertent activity that the enemy can pick up on, and that is why DOD is telling soldiers to be careful with what you are blogging or writing about. DOD is providing troops with more morale, welfare and recreation capability than ever before.”

Hight said warfighters’ use of social-networking sites has never stopped the military network from performing at full capacity, but trends showing growing use of such sites required DOD to act.

“We looked at a variety of options, and with the scale of the problem, we couldn’t find a technical solution [on the scale] we have to deal with,” Hight said.

One security expert said he thought security worries rather than bandwidth concerns led DOD to issue the new policy. “DOD couldn't risk becoming infected with a virus because e-mail and instant messaging are susceptible to malware,” said Mohamed Elrefai, vice president of GTSI’s enterprise solutions group. However, he added, there are ways to ensure that bandwidth is available at critical times “by setting up a script at the network level or a blocking mechanism.”
DOD’s baker’s dozen of blocked sitesThe Defense Department blocked access from military computers to the following 13 Web sites.
— Jason Miller

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