August 7, 2009: The U.S. Marine Corps is the latest American military service to change their policy on troop use of the Internet. The marines have now banned the use of Twitter and Facebook while on duty, using NIPRNET (the separate Department of Defense Internet, which also has access to the general Internet). Marines can still access Twitter and Facebook via non-military Internet access (like at home, an Internet Café or via a smart phone). What the marines are concerned about are viruses and other malware used by hackers, via social networks, to get into users computers. While the military has lots of defenses against hackers, they have had instances of malware getting into NIPRNET while troops were using social networking sites. But not all the services have the same polices. Each service is responsible for its own network security. Thus soldiers, sailors and some airmen (policy here varies from base to base) can access Twitter and Facebook while on NIPRNET.
Earlier this year, bowing to growing pressure from the troops, the U.S. Army unblocked access to Facebook, Flickr, Delicious, Vimeo and Twitter at 81 bases in the United States. It was only two years ago, that the Department of Defense blocked access to YouTube, MySpace, Metacafe, IFilm, StupidVideos, FileCabi, BlackPlanet, Hi5, Pandora, MTV, 1.fm, live365, and Photobucket. Since then, other sites, like Twitter, were added to the blocked list, then removed. These bans meant that anyone using a computer connected to Department of Defense network (NIPRNET), was no longer able to reach the banned sites. And there was a lot of blowback from the troops, and some commanders as well.
The initial reason for the bans was quite practical. All those video and audio clips were jamming up the network, and making it difficult to get official business done. This is a problem university networks began to encounter in the 1990s, and solved by a combination of expanding capacity, and restricting how much students could use the network for downloading large files. The Department of Defense is in a slightly different situation, because many of its users overseas depend on satellites for their Internet connection. Land based fiber-optic lines can provide a lot more capacity, but in combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, satellite is often all that's available, and it's not enough for lots of videos.
But the meager satellite link made the Internet available, and the troops loved it. Aside from the obvious popularity of email and use of messaging systems, the Internet also provided access to social networking systems (MySpace, with 125 million users, and Facebook with 220 million). These gradually became a popular way for American troops overseas to keep in touch with the folks back home, and with each other. The ease-of-use that has made these sites so popular with civilians, was equally attractive to troops who don't have much time to spend on the Internet. Most troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have access to the Internet, but often via the equivalent of a dial-up connection. So MySpace and Facebook are convenient enough for troops to quickly post messages, pictures and short videos.
The brass were not happy with all this social networking, but were reluctant to attempt a crackdown. The suspect troops can be hard to identify, if they want to be, and have proved to be very responsible when it comes to OPSEC (Operational Security, not giving out info that can help the enemy). The brass have also learned that taking away Internet access would cause a serious morale problem.
Facebook is eclipsing MySpace as the social networking site everyone, including the troops, wants to be on. Twitter has become popular with commanders and technical team leaders, for keeping in touch with their subordinates. Flickr is where everyone keeps their photos. So, for the moment, the military will scrounge up the bandwidth to make some social networking sites available.
Before the end of the year, the Department of Defense expects to have established Internet security rules that will apply to all of the services. The Department of Defense is also working to establish security software and system configuration rules that will be used by everyone.