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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