The 'happy' medium between OPSEC and social networking: Can it be achieved?

  • Published
  • By Maj. Gen. Henry C. "Hank" Morrow
  • 1st Air Force commander
I can recall sitting in my office at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, when I first realized that e-mail was going to revolutionize our way of doing business. I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, I just got an e-mail from a two-star general congratulating me on my promotion to lieutenant colonel.'

In the olden days, I would have received a third-generation memo on Xeroxed letterhead with a few signatures or scribbled initials that came in a wrinkled 'holey-joe' through base distribution.

I also know we all chuckled when we first heard the term, "paperless Air Force." Did anyone really believe we could be totally paperless?

And yet here we are, in a hyperinstantaneous state of information overload; all being done electronically without a single piece of paper exchanging hands. Chuckle if you will, but I believe that social networking sites are going to be the next Air Force revolution, and for that battle, we all need to be adequately armed.

I've had many discussions with various supporters as well as naysayers when it comes to sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Advocates for the sites feel they provide a forum where ideas, opinions and imagery can be freely shared with a worldwide audience. Antagonists feel that posting too much information can compromise operational security, or worse cost troops their lives, simply from a 140-character "tweet."

So, is there a happy medium between the two? From a commander's perspective, I believe the answer is yes, provided users stick to three basic rules of engagement:

1. Common sense. Simple enough, right? Well, sometimes the simple things are what get people into significant trouble.

We entrust crew chiefs to maintain multimillion dollar aircraft. We issue security forces personnel weapons and ammunition to protect our installation. We empower medical technicians to draw our blood or administer vaccinations. These Airmen are extensively trained to perform these tasks. But with any job, a layer of common sense is key to being able to rapidly react to a situation that presents itself. Just because that same security forces Airman has been trained to use a weapon, doesn't mean that's all he needs. He must use his instincts in situations that involve human behavior -- he must apply his common sense.

The same rules apply when it comes to blogging and social networking. Airmen must use their common sense when posting information that is accessible to not only family and friends, but also to the enemy. The bad guys are out there watching us, too, reading all the information you post to your personal site, and what's posted to your buddy's site, and to the Air Force chief of staff's site, and so on. They put all the bits of information together like a puzzle. It's known as "data mining," and our enemies are constantly monitoring what we post to the Web.

2. Judicial prudence. This is area that gets people into the most trouble when using social networking sites. As a servicemember, you don't forfeit your First Amendment rights the day join the military. We all take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and that includes everyone's right to free speech. But that right to speak freely must be balanced against the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Just as the old saying goes about "You can't yell 'FIRE!' in a crowded theater" under the auspices of free speech, you also can't release sensitive, classified or inappropriate information as a member of the armed forces.

Many military members' social media sites contain photos or video of themselves in uniform, which automatically leads a viewer to conclude you represent all men and women in uniform. Others blog from their deployed location about daily life and experiences in the war zone. This is all acceptable, provided the information you post adheres to UCMJ and operations security rules.

Someone once gave me a simple acronym to remember on the type of information that can and cannot be released. The acronym is SAPP, and it stands for security, accuracy, policy and privacy. The SAPP principle is an easy one to remember when you're about to blog about an upcoming deployment or a recent court-martial in your unit or the rumor you heard in the squadron break room. Is the information accurate? Can you back it up with facts? Are you compromising operational security by releasing this information? Are you violating someone's privacy by blogging about him or her?

3. When in doubt, backspace it out. I have a personal rule that I make myself follow any time I'm about to craft an e-mail if I am angry about a situation. I step away from the computer or I put my BlackBerry in its holster. The worst thing you can do is send an e-mail when you are emotionally attached to a situation. We've all been there banging away at the keyboard, typing a tapestry of words meant to physically cut into the intended recipient for the wrong that person committed in your eyes. My advice to you: don't hit send. Those words, in some way, shape or form will come back to haunt you.

This same advice holds true for when you are typing something on your social media site. Anything you post to the Internet -- including photos -- will be there forever. Do you really want to post a picture of yourself that could place you, your family, or your unit in harm's way? It's imperative that you think before you post, and if you are ever in doubt about what you are about let the world see or read about: delete it. Go with your instincts. Refer back to my rule No. 1: use your common sense.

The rules ultimately come down to this: choose your words wisely. Operational security should be practiced at the source. The same tactics that are exercised when disclosing information to the public should be applied to social media usage. By educating and training our younger generation servicemembers -- the digital natives -- on what information should be guarded and what can be released, I believe we can find that "happy medium" and capitalize on this burgeoning technology to its fullest extent.