The United States Marines announced recently that those serving in the Marines are barred from using the world's most popular social networking sites. According to The Guardian, an order was sent out on Aug. 3, 2009, informing Marines that they are no longer to use the social networking sites MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Such sites are used extensively (or were) by members of the U.S. military to keep in touch with family members and friends, as many of our troops serving abroad do have Internet access. While officials acknowledged the fact that many Marines use those sites to stay in contact with their loved ones, they stated flatly that such websites are proven havens for "malicious actors and content" and that they are "particularly high risk due to information exposure ... and targeting by adversaries." Social networking sites, military officials say, represent an "exploitation window" comprising an unacceptable security risk.
This isn't the first time the U.S. military has taken action to prevent a perceived threat represented by some form of technology. These technologies have ranged from those just emerging and developing, to those taken for granted, to popular children's toys. In each case, some threat, real or imagined, was the justification for banning the use, presence or possession of the item or service in question. In many cases, there were at least some news stories at the time questioning the need for and the validity of such a ban. Because the United States military is not a democracy and because the security of the nation and of our military forces is deemed to be at stake, such bans are nevertheless accepted as the enforceable fiat of those in military power.
Back in March, Google Earth's teams were prohibited from making street-level video maps of U.S. military bases, which makes pretty good sense, if you ask me. There are civilians whose homes don't house weapons and infrastructure of national security, and many of them don't particularly like the idea of Google Earth camera cars filming their homes and putting those homes on the Web. In April, an enraged gang of villagers in Broughton, England, chased away a Google Earth vehicle. Frankly, I'm with the villagers. I don't want my home on Google's website, complete with my car in the driveway, and I especially don't want Islamist terrorists to be able to plot out their next attack on a military base or a shopping mall simply by pasting an address into Google's search field.
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Obvious as that call seems, there have been other cases in which the military banned simple consumer electronics out of security fears. In 2008, the Pentagon banned USB Flash Drives while coping with some sort of virus threat affecting external storage. A few years before that, in 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld banned camera phones in U.S. Army installations in Iraq. Digital cameras and camcorders were also prohibited in Iraqi military compounds. Predictably, critics of the Iraq war screamed about the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy, wondering aloud just what Bush and his "cronies" were trying to hide. The real security concern was the same shared by many large corporations that ban the presence of camera phones within their facilities. They don't like the idea of someone snapping a camera phone picture and using it for espionage, military or industrial.
There are times, however, when we are reminded that our military and other government agencies are run by bureaucrats, and that those bureaucrats are not necessarily always right. There are times, in fact, when they are so wrong that they parody themselves. In 1999, the National Security Agency banned Furbys from its Fort Meade premises in Maryland. If you've never seen one and don't remember them, Furbys were small, vaguely owl-like stuffed animals that contained motorized parts and a computer chip. They were interactive, up to a point. The more you pretended to "feed" them and the more you played with them, the more gibberish in their made-up language they would spout. The computer chip could cause the Furby to react to noise, and its eyes would open and roll around. It even "slept" when dormant and could be roused by shaking it. They were, basically, very cute but also inevitably annoying.
What Furbys were not was espionage tools. Despite reports to the contrary, they were not sophisticated enough to repeat anything they heard (unless modified for some spying purpose, I suppose). They were just elaborately motorized toys, really, and represented no more a spy threat than a camera phone or a digital voice recorder (and most likely less). Just why anyone working for "No Such Agency" would feel compelled to bring a motorized stuffed animal to work I could not say.
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Joking aside, a lot of people who have been staying in touch with loved ones serving abroad are going to be upset about the recent ban on social networking sites in the Marines. That is unfortunate. I want our troops to stay in touch with their families, and I want their morale to be as high as it can be. When dealing with war (and especially with the "war on terror," regardless of whether the weakling Obama administration chooses to use that term), we must err on the side of caution rather than allow our enemies to exploit potential vulnerabilities. This is true despite the fact that, arguably, our national media are a much greater security threat than are our troops' cell phone cameras and MySpace accounts. Geraldo Rivera managed to give away the position of the unit tolerating his ride-along, while nobody in that Division used Facebook to do the same.
Still, that doesn't change the potential security leaks represented by social networking sites. The military's ban on these sites is justified, despite the harm to morale it is likely to do. I'd rather our soldiers be disgruntled than dead. In the meantime, I imagine many of them will rediscover the art of sending letters, using e-mail or snail mail.
To this writer, that's not such a terrible thing.