DOD welcomes Web 2.0 to its networks

The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas has a collection of letters, diaries and other records that document the experiences and views of about 50 U.S. soldiers who served during World War II. With simple pen and paper, the soldiers wrote about the horrors, hardships and boredom of their lives on the front lines — perspectives they shared with families and friends back home.

With a nine-page memo circulated Feb. 25, the Defense Department gave permission to today’s military members to tell their own stories and stay in touch with family and friends using the modern-day equivalent of pen and paper: various social networking and communications Internet sites, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

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The new policy, effective immediately, opens access to those previously blocked sites on the military’s unclassified but sensitive computers and networks. It has drawn praise, criticism and some warnings.

On an individual level, the policy lets service members take advantage of some of the Internet’s best qualities for keeping in touch with people, writes Navy Mass Communications Specialist Michael Starkey in the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan blog.

“I'm not trying to say that phone calls aren't important, they just can be challenging to rely on while deployed as an everyday communication method,” Starkey writes. “Facebook allows one to broadcast to a mass group of friends and family at once, even if something simple like 'It's Sunny Outside' or 'Getting tired of Mashed Potatoes.' These little messages let [everyone] know that you're safe and sane.”

The policy is also a welcome nod to fairness and trust in the troops, writes Ken, who describes himself as an active-duty field artillery major in the Army and writes a blog called "Bulletwisdom."

“It was difficult to watch senior leaders tweet and blog while soldiers in the field were occasionally disciplined for doing nothing more than voicing their own opinion,” Ken writes. “Of course, this is the military, none of us are under the illusions that we service members have the same free speech rights as the rest of the civilian population.”

Commanders can still temporarily block access to social networking sites to maintain operational security and readiness. However, some think the bigger risk is not in any individual slip-ups but in the larger patterns that a determined adversary might piece together.

“If you think this is about one person in the military leaking something bad from one profile page, that’s not what the security risk is,” writes a person under the screen name n3td3v commenting on Cnet’s story about the new policy. “It’s multiple profile pages leaking small snippets that join up a bigger intelligence picture.”

Consuming precious battlefield bandwidth is another problem that could crop up, because the new policy didn’t come with an in-kind commitment to increase bandwidth on the military’s networks, reports Tony Romm on The Hill’s technology blog.

“As a network administrator, I could have warned them: Facebook and similar sites are bandwidth hogs” writes Brett Glass, commenting on The Hill’s story. “Bandwidth is scarce on the battlefield; the military will have to control its usage carefully and prioritize important traffic.”

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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