Social media privacy and the armed forces

Social Media Privacy and the Armed Forces

World Wide Web usage for the nearly 1.5 million active members of the United States military provides the Department of Defense (DoD) with a double-edged sword of usefulness versus privacy protection.

On one hand, the Web contributes a valuable way to boost the morale of deployed troops who can communicate with family via social networking websites and email. It also allows quick information dissemination and exchange throughout the rank and file of the military, as well as outreach and public relations opportunities.

On the other hand, electronic privacy is a key issue at the DoD, and the agency has developed layers of security to protect sensitive information that military Internet users may inadvertently leak. This article examines the key issues surrounding social media privacy and the armed forces.


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US military changes policy on social media use.

In February 2010 the United States military concluded a seven-month study into the risks and benefits of allowing its members to make use of the emerging capabilities of the Internet. As a result, the DoD unblocked use of key websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, personal blogs and YouTube, which the organization had disallowed for military personnel in 2007.

Along with the increased access came a new policy and guidelines outlining responsible Web use for all members of military organizations, as well as for all users of the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET). Although the policy allowed expansion of Internet usage, it also made provisions for privacy protection that gave commanders authority to defend against any activity that posed a threat to military operations, defense secrets or DoD networks.


Compromised Internet privacy leads to security threats.

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In the civilian world, when someone violates your electronic privacy, it may result in hassles such as identity theft, which is described in this article. In the military, however, violations of Internet privacy can threaten more than your identity. It can also put lives at risk.

In July 2010 Fox News reported the case of Robin Sage, an attractive cyberthreat analyst at the Naval Network Warfare Command in Norfolk, Virginia. With accounts on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, Sage quickly developed a network of nearly 500 military personnel, defense contractors and intelligence agency staffers.

Between December 2009 and January 2010, Sage gained access to information such as bank account numbers, email addresses and private and classified documents. Sage even learned the location of several secret military units based on photo metadata found on pictures posted on soldiers’ Facebook accounts, as well as by analyzing connections between military personnel and organizations on social networking websites.

Robin Sage, it turned out, didn’t exist. She was the invention of cybersecurity specialist, Tom Ryan, who was performing a 28-day experiment. Ryan presented his findings at the 2010 Black Hat Technical Security Conference in Las Vegas.

The Robin Sage experiment clearly illustrates how easily and inadvertently service members can compromise their Internet privacy without realizing they’re doing so. How, then, can service men and women protect their electronic privacy in order to avoid providing information that can jeopardize military security? Listed below are some suggestions to keep in mind when thinking about social media privacy and the armed forces.

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Monitor your network.

Are you sure you know everyone in your network? Take a look at your friends and connections’ lists on your social networking accounts. If there are people you don’t know, then how can you know whom you’re giving access to your private information, posts and photographs? Remove social networking ties to people you don’t recognize, and don’t accept a friend or connection request from someone without first verifying the identity of the person.


Control the information you provide.

Although the DoD has security measures in place to protect classified information, things slip through the cracks. Therefore, it’s essential that you carefully monitor what you post on social networks, YouTube and photo-sharing websites such as Flickr to assure that you aren’t inadvertently giving away sensitive data.


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Beware of metadata.

Many people don’t realize that digital photographs and video contain embedded metadata that may help others identify who and where you are. Some cameras even have GPS locations available that show where you were when you captured the images. Be aware that your photographs contain embedded sensitive information, and don’t post any pictures or video taken in locations that need to remain private. If you do post such material, consider using a PNG or JPEG stripper program to remove metadata before you post.


Educate your friends and family.

Friends and family can also put classified information at risk on the Internet. Be sure to discuss the sensitive nature of some of the knowledge they receive, such as your location or movements. Ask friends and family members not to mention any such material on their social networking accounts.


Learn more to reduce the risk of leaking secure information.

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In an attempt to better educate members of the military about responsible use of Internet capabilities like social media, the DoD hosts the Social Media Hub, which provides education, training, guidelines and policies designed to help minimize the incidence of unintentional leaked secure information.  Take this information into account when learning about social media privacy and the armed forces.

Karen Frazier is an author, freelance writer and journalist who has written three books. She also writes health and fitness articles for and serves as a wine editor and writer for

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