The United States Marines today announce a ban on Twitter, Facebook and several other Social Media sites. This ban is to be in force for 1 year and it is being done because "These internet sites in general are a proven haven for malicious actors and content and are particularly high risk due to information exposure, user generated content and targeting by adversaries."
No doubt that for the Marines themselves and their families this is a very disappointing thing. I know how my family watch my Facebook page for updates and I know how my wife and kids all keep in touch with their friends and family members using Facebook. Obviously many Marines’ families do, too.
Twitter is really a stream of consciousness for many of these soldiers that keeps their families up on what they are doing and dealing with. I just have to think about my own fascination with with space exploration and how, for the last couple of weeks I have been glued to Twitter watching the tweets that came from Commander Mark Polansky during STS-127 – the latest flight of the space shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station to install additional parts for Kibo. How much more must friends and family of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan be interested in what their loved ones are doing? And getting regular updates helps to know that they are safe.
Having said all that, I have to confess that as a software person, I am surprised at how long it has taken for this ban to happen. I just have to think about how hard it is for me to get my kids not to put stuff on their Facebook/MySpace pages that is more personal than it should be, and it stands to reason that the same issues will exist with the military. The risk of posting something about an ongoing operation inadvertantly has to be extremely high. With Twitter, people can just decide to become a follower (I have this happen all the time with Twitter) and who knows who is listening.
When I first read this report, I was discussing it with a couple of people. Someone asked me if I saw a lot of difference between a Marine talking about what he was doing with a group of people in a hotel lobby in Iraq and the same Marine posting a note about it on his Facebook page or on Twitter. The answer is "Absolutely!" The audience for Facebook or Twitter has the potential to be a) completely insecure, b) far more anonymous and c) far more geographically dispersed than in a hotel lobby. Also, even if those in the hotel lobby were to talk about what they heard to others, it would not carry the same weight as if it came directly from the Marine himself.
Another person I spoke to said that they felt that it violated the Marines’ first amendment rights. That’s a tough argument to make. The military has previously legally censored blogs and as the government provide the Marines their internet access, it is hard to look at this any differently from an employer blocking access to these web-sites for their employees.
Of course, it would be ludicrous to think that stopping access to Facebook and Twitter is going to solve this problem. Putting a blog together is not really that hard at all and what about personal web-sites? Just go and Google "marine in iraq" and look at all the results that you get where individuals have posted their own experiences in one forum or another and the majority of them are not even on a well-known social media site. It is unlikely that this is going to stop Marines from communicating what they want to the people that they want to.
What I find really interesting is that the ban is only intended to last for a year. I don’t see how there is any way that these social media sites are likely to become more secure in that period of time. So it’s hard to imagine that this ban could really be lifted any time soon. More likely, the military will create their own secure social media service that can be used to achieve the same goals.
Whatever happens, it’s interesting to see how social media is significantly impacting virtually every demographic of the population. Mr Obama’s political campaign was extremely successful at leveraging this medium to garner political support. Businesses are intent on finding ways of leveraging social networks for financial gain. We already know that sexual predators and other criminals have been leveraging social media to find their next victim. It’s also very sobering to realize that terrorist organizations use social media themselves for recruiting and organizing.
Whether you agree with the Marines’ decision or not, you can certainly understand why it was made.