The dominoes are falling on government use of social networks, but industry analysts are exasperated by the U.S. military’s inconsistent policies for using sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.
The U.S. Marine Corps issued an order Aug. 3 banning the use of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter for the next year. One day later, the U.S. Pentagon ordered a review of the threats and benefits of using social network sites.
These actions follow the U.S. Army’s decision in June to let personnel access Facebook and Twitter even as it banned MySpace and YouTube.
The Marine Corps was particularly harsh in its condemnation of the use of social networks, as it wrote in its order:
It’s hard to argue with such concerns. U.S. soldiers’ lives are already in jeopardy enough in the war versus Iraq without service men and women inadvertently giving away strategic locations.
More than 250 million people use Facebook in the United States; more than 100 million U.S. citizens use MySpace; and Twitter attracted a total of 44.5 million unique visitors worldwide in June.
But some analysts who follow social networks believe it’s not fair to cut off Facebook, MySpace and Twitter use for soldiers who use these tools as lifelines to family and friends back home. These analysts believe the military just needs a little governance over the manner in which the sites are used.
Altimeter Group analyst Charlene Li said she spent time on the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, which just deployed from San Diego with 7,000 soldiers July 31. Soldiers on the carrier told her Facebook was their lifeline to home, enabling them to see pictures and video of families. “If you think about the morale for service members, it’s absolutely essential,” Li told eWEEK.
Analysts Baffled By Social Network Ban
Li acknowledged that while operation security could be compromised through social networks, soldiers could also compromise security via other Web-based communications conduits, such as e-mail or personal Websites. The Marine Corps did not outlaw these activities or Internet use by soldiers overall, in its order.
“They don’t have a Facebook problem, they have an operational security and management problem here,” Li said. “It comes down to excellent training and communications. You don’t tell people where you are. By and large, military personnel are pretty smart about not putting things in they shouldn’t.”
Gartner analysts were also somewhat baffled by the Marine Corps’ summary ban of social sites. Gartner’s Anthony Bradley said the Marine Corps “runs the risk of significantly negatively impacting their image” and posed several questions on his corporate blog, including: What actual risks were encountered or anticipated? Is the concern network security or human behavior risk? Why wouldn’t good governance minimize the risk?
“All technologies have a down side,” Bradley wrote. “Planes, helicopters, trucks and automobiles crash. Weapons unintentionally hurt people. Children drown in pools every year. Yet we don’t ban these things, we adjust our behaviors to increase the benefits and reduce the risks. Why would social networking (or the Internet/Web in general) be any different?”
As a counterpoint, Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio, told eWEEK via e-mail that soldiers could post information in full compliance with policies, but unwillingly disclosing patterns that become apparent when information is aggregated by hostiles.
“As in the corporate world, trade secrets could be leaked through social media, so in the intelligence or defense domains there are cases where risks outweigh benefits,” DiMaio said.
However, he echoed Li’s comments when he noted the Marine Corps ban won’t solve the information leak issue, “if soldiers can still use personal devices to access social networks on the Internet.”
There is another dark side to the Marine Corps ban of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter: it cuts off peaceful community outreach, according to Li. “The bigger thing is the military’s need to reach out, to be ambassadors, to engage with the places where they are serving,” Li added.
DiMaio agreed. He articulated his vision for how governments can leverage social network sites for outreach in this blog post in May.
Read more on the subject on TechMeme here.