FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 23, 2012)--It seems like everyone, and everything, has a Facebook page these days.
From middle school students to U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the range of people and places that can be found with a quick search or clicking a link is phenomenal. Millions of people, businesses and military organizations log on to Facebook every day to share information, interests and news.
For members of the U.S. military and other government agencies, Facebook makes keeping in touch with friends and family easier than ever. This is, of course, where the problem with Facebook lies.
Just as its slogan states, Facebook is "a social utility that connects you with the people around you." The section that Facebook appears to have left out of its slogan is the important closing annotation that should read, "to include total strangers, the guy who ran the stoplight this morning at the main gate, scam artists and a collection of individuals working against U.S. military interests."
Everything Soldiers and Family members share, including birth dates, vacation photos and even their exact geographical location, can be logged by Facebook applications and then accessed by hackers, identity thieves and advertisers. The information shared on Facebook can not only endanger personal privacy, but also put operations security at risk and endanger the lives of service members at home and abroad.
A 2011 estimate cited by the U.S. Army states that "98 percent of the intel Al-Qaeda collects is from open source," including social networks and blogs. Surprisingly, much of the information collected by Al-Qaeda and others come from some of the most innocent-looking items and people.
Facebook and its estimated 800 million users will continue to grow. Soldiers will find new ways to share their information and the little details of their lives around the world, but there will always be ways to protect the most sensitive information from reaching the wrong hands.
Perhaps the simplest advice on how to maintain both operations and personal security comes from a passage in the 2011 U.S. Army social media and OPSEC guidance: "If you aren't comfortable putting the same information on a sign in your yard, don't put it online."
A post by a tech-savvy grandmother about the details of a unit's upcoming deployment can lead to the accidental disclosure of sensitive information about troop movements. A photograph taken on a Smartphone in a combat zone and put on Facebook can provide opposing forces with exact locations of U.S. forces simply because the image is embedded with geographical data that Facebook uses to "tag" people and locations.
Even personally identifiable information like phone numbers and names of relatives can give America's enemies enough information to compromise operations security and individual privacy.
Although there are risks involved with using Facebook, YouTube or any other social media platform, there are real benefits to being online. By maintaining a social media presence, branches of the military, U.S. installations around the world and even individual units can share information, boost morale and strengthen relationships with the public.
Facebook and other social media platforms let Soldiers show their support for the military while sharing photos or maintaining a virtual farm. For those deployed overseas, websites like Facebook aren't just for recreation, they provide Soldiers with an instant connection their friends and family back home, bringing them together whether they are in Kabul or Kentucky.
The key to using and enjoying Facebook at home or overseas without sharing personal or sensitive information is the same for Soldiers and civilians alike: privacy.
The Army suggests using several strategies to make sure Facebook's profiles and the posts of Soldiers' friends and family help maintain OPSEC, including the following:
• Adjust privacy settings to "private" or "friends only."
• Remove any personally identifiable information that gives away too much information about you or your family.
• Avoid sharing details about bases and capabilities by not posting photos of or details about formations, quarters, armored vehicles and/or weapons.
Disable the GPS feature on your mobile device or turn off tagging or tracking applications on your Facebook account that give your exact location.
• Educate yourself, your friends and your family about what is and isn't safe to share on Facebook or any other social networking platform.