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DoD Social Media Policy Expires March 1 with No Follow-up. What's the Impact?

The DoD's social media policy, titled, "Directive-Type Memorandum (DTM) 09-026 - Responsible and Effective ..." will expire on March 1, 2011.  Through discussions with people in DoD, I've learned that the stated plan to replace this policy with a long-term Instruction has been shelved indefinitely, and all resources associated with this effort have been terminated.  This raises many questions.  

  • Will soldiers across the DoD still be able to access facebook and twitter to communicate with their friends and families?
  • Will DoD again be prevented from conducting mission-oriented work outside of their network? 
  • Will social networking sites be blocked across DoD, or will we go back to the previous status quo where they are blocked in some services but not others?

This policy was result of a very contentions internal and eventually public fight in 2009 about whether people in the military other than recruiters and public affairs officers should be able to access sites like Facebook, Youtube, Skype and Twitter.  On one side of the debate, US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), the Marine Corps and the Air Force (initially) supported blocking access to social networking sites, while the DoD CIO, OSD Public Affairs, the Navy, Army, and many of the Combatant Commands advocated a more open stance.  Many other components engaged in this process, with specific topics of interest ranging from intelligence concerns, privacy, innovation, security and records management.  In the end, the Joint Chiefs and Deputy Secretary decide upon a posture that advocated an open stance that took both security risks and operational opportunities into account.  My part in this effort (as a contractor to DoD CIO) was as one of the principal authors of the draft policy that senior leaders took and modified over a period of months, eventually leading to the final version.

 

While the malicious actions of Pfc. Manning have certainly shifted the debate regarding information sharing and "Need to Know" versus "Need to Share", I think its worth revisiting the rationale behind the stance of DoD's social media policy.  The reasons for stating that the "NIPRNET shall be configured to provide access to Internet-based capabilities across all DoD Components" have not gone away, nor have the faults associated with the proposed remedy to close down access.  As anyone involved in policy writing knows, the actual policy statements provide an approach to resolve the issues identified, yet the problems and goals are often not part of the actual policy itself.  From my own perspective, here were key issues that the Internet-based Capabilities policy addressed:

  • Access to social networking services on sites like Facebook, YouTube, Skype and Twitter has lessened the burden that multiple tours lasting extended durations have had on military families - cutting off access would potentially impact military readiness.
  • DoD policies have not kept pace with the risks and opportunities generated by evolving internet technologies
  • DoD is already using internet technologies outside of the DoD network for critical mission oriented work
  • The DoD approach to interacting with the internet is fractured and inconsistent
  • The threats posed by social networking services (social engineering and malware) are not unique, but are endemic across the internet
  • The proposed remedy (blocking access to social networking sites) doesn't work

Military Families access to Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Skype, etc: During the formulation of this policy, for the first time ever, DoD engaged with the public in true open government fashion to solicit guidance from the public.  The DoD Web 2.0 Guidance Forum generated significant interest, with over 280 responses alone from military families relaying heart-wrenching stories attesting to the need for access to these tools, even outside of MWR facilities. 

 

From Robert Dozier:

With Facebook and Twitter, a deployed Soldier has the opportunity to speak in relative-time to their friends and loved ones, without the limitations of real-time methods.Imagine the words “heading to the hospital” as they are shared in text form vs. voice form. Could be a spouse going to deliver a baby, or a Soldier being med-evaced. In the face of reality, these words may never get through except through the use of Social Media. Keep it open, keep it safe, and keep it real.

From Tina Hayes:

My daughter is in Iraq and used the net cam to watch her son’s first birthday party. These sites are the way most family members can find out how their soldiers are doing. This is my daughters second tour and using the computer is much easier than using the phone to find out how she is doing and what she needs me to send her. Please don’t take this mode of communication away from the families of our soldiers.

From Kelly Awtrey

These social media tools are invaluable while stationed overseas where communication, contrary to popular belief and what the media will have you believe, is spotty AT BEST. Even if I am not actually chatting with my husband we can exchange necessary information through “wall posts” that keep us informed, such as bank transfers, equipment I need to send him, etc. It is also a HUGE morale booster to be able to communicate with family and loved ones. As my husband’s missions are extremely dangerous just getting a quick post lets me know he’s alive which is an IMMENSE stress reliever for me.

If you care about this issue or even have a passing interest, do yourself a favor and read through a some of these posts - the need is clear.  Bottom line, its clear that social media has had an immense impact in allowing families to maintain a sense of normalcy.  This has a direct impact to military readiness.

 

DoD Policies have not kept pace with the opportunities and risks of internet technologies: The policy uses the term Internet-based Capabilities for a specific reason - We might be concerned about the risks of social networking sites today, but tomorrow will provide a whole new set of innovations that have new security concerns, and new ways of improving our work. When this policy expires, the associated actions in the roles and responsibilities with tracking the risks and opportunities also disappear.  If DoD doesn't track this, it will both lose out on the opportunities, while yet again being blindsided by the new vulnerabilities.   

 

DoD is already using Internet Technologies outside of the DoD network for critical mission oriented work: One of the key questions during the policy development process concerned whether DoD personnel and organizations could conduct critical mission oriented work outside of the DoD Network.  Jack Holt captured the question best by asking whether we should look at the Internet as a fortress to defend from, or whether we consider it a field of maneuver.  If its a fortress to defend from, than yes, we should build the walls.  The problem is by doing so, we will be ceding the internet to our opponents and adversaries who will use it for misinformation, disinformation and impersonation.  The current policy allows the following types of things to occur:

  • For disaster response situations, the best pre-validated information early on in a crisis is often social media data. For example, during the Haiti disaster one year ago, the US military relied on Haitians texting needs in Kreyol to an SMS shortcode for their front-end situational awareness efforts.  Through Mission 4636, whole groups of volunteers including students and members of the Haitian diaspora worked to turn the texts messages into actionable data which resulted in Marine and Coast Guard hilocopters being deployed to rescue hundreds if not thousands of lives.  
  • Combatant Commands regularly use social media sites to get key situational awareness information in places where credible news organizations don't exist.
  • Services and Combatant Commands use social networking sites to form relationships with NGOs, partner nations and other US agencies. Creating these social networks in peace-time settings allows them to be leveraged in crisis situations.
  • Senior Leaders in the Army use sites like Facebook to directly connect with soldiers in ways never possible before. 
  • Regular soldiers are able to fully assist recruitment efforts by engaging in direct peer to peer conversations with those thinking about joining. Social media allows them to assist recruiters in ways never possible before. 

DoD's approach to interacting with the internet is fractured and inconsistent: Prior to the Internet-based Capabilities policy, if you were in the Marine Corps, sites like Youtube and Facebook were blocked. But if you were in the Army, you just might have full access to them.  The policy addressed this by requiring the same level of access across DoD.  On March 1, I wouldn't be surprised to see YouTube and other sites cut off once again.  

 

The threats posed by social networking services (social engineering and malware) are not unique: While there are concerns with social networking services, most internet security experts will tell you that the number of attacks via email far outnumber the rest of the web.  Social engineering and malware occur across the internet, not just through Facebook.  And truly, the companies comprising the "Main street" of the internet have top quality security teams who work tirelessly to make their sites safe. Compare these with the far more dangerous "side streets" of the internet if you want to quantify risk. In other words, the risk is the connection to the web itself, not just social networking sites.

 

Blocking access to Social Networking Sites doesn't work: During the policy development process, we were able to change the debate by shifting the definition from "Social Networking Sites" to "Social Networking Services".  As part of this effort, I asked David Recordon, Co-founder of OpenID, current Facebook Open Source Programs Manager, and all around Uber Alpha-Geek, to write about the problem with the remedy STRATCOM was proposing.  David's blog post on O'Reilly Radar, titled, "Dear DoD, the Web Itself is Social" was distributed and read at the highest levels during the policy debate.  In describing the problem with blocking social networking sites, David made the case that its virtually impossible to separate social networking sites from the rest of the internet.  In this post he made the following statement:

It's my belief that even if the DoD tried to block all access to social networking sites it would be a never ending and ultimately unsuccessful battle as social is becoming a core component of the web itself.

Even if you block Facebook, people can still interact on Facebook by using HuffingtonPost, WashingtonPost.com, or the New York Times site, or one of hundreds, if not now thousands of other sites. Social networking "sites" is not a relevant term, as their "services" now pervade the internet.  As an example, we've now gotten to the point where its out of place for a smaller website to ask the user to create a unique login. We EXPECT to use our Facebook, Twitter or Google account to login. So in essence, the question isn't really whether we should block the social networking sites, the question is whether we block access to the internet.  This is truly where the argument will end up, and in fact, was exactly where it ended up during the Internet-based Capabilities policy development phase. 

 

The sad part in all this is that Washington Headquarter Services (WHS), the organization in DoD that manages the policy Directives process, recommended that the language submitted in the DTM go straight to a Directive (a permanent document) instead of a Directive Type Memorandum (a transient document that lasts only 180 days). Had this recommendation been accepted, like most good policy, this would have had an enduring effect. 

 

What's Next? Given that the Internet-based Capabilities policy was the first policy in DoD to actually engage the public in the policy formulation process, it stands to reason that the public should have a chance to weigh in on its dismissal. There were reasons that USG shifted toward a "Need to Share" mindset.  Those reasons haven't diminished, nor has innovation on the internet. 

  • Military families: Do you still need to communicate with your husband, wife, son or daughter through Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Youtube and all the rest?  If so, now's the time to tell someone, like your congressional representative, for instance.  
  • Open Government Advocates: Does the expiration of the DoD social media policy seem like a good step? Is it really If not, perhaps we should be discussing it. 
  • News Organizations:  Your initial breaking of classified data, regularly inaccurate reports and dissemination of out of date drafts of the internet-based capabilities policy helped turn what was a fairly rigorous and internally transparent assessment of the associated risks and opportunities into a circus environment with ramped up emotions and ever tighter unrealistic decision deadlines.  Given the fun and enormous chaos you were able to engender before, are you really willing to let this policy die quietly?

I would love to see DoD senior leadership address this issue.  Specifically, I would love to them to say that they will not allow blockage of military family communications, that DoD Components can still conduct mission oriented work outside of DoD networks (again, would be nice to see the current policy statement that will back this up) and that they are devoting resources to keeping pace with the risks AND opportunities that internet technologies will continue to serve up.  I am positive that DoD is taking appropriate actions to protect the network, but would love to be just as reassured that they are still plan on taking advantage of the opportunities, and not ceding the internet space to our adversaries. 

 

 

Note: I am no longer working for DoD, and have not since the middle of last year.  These views are solely my own and only relate to my time working with DoD CIO in the policy development process. I claim no special knowledge other than recent anecdotal conversations and the experience I had during the policy formulation process, nor have I looked at any documents that provide details on current plans.  

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Comment by Maxine Teller on February 23, 2011 at 3:13pm
Posted by Terry Davis this a.m. via eChirp: "Effective period of DTM 09-026 has been extended. http://go.usa.gov/gEn"  Noel, I do believe that your blog post was the catalyst for DoD CIO's timely extension of this DTM. 
Comment by Noel Dickover on January 20, 2011 at 4:48pm
Hi Alex and Aldo, I think the bottom line in all this is all those who helped with the initial battle for the social media policy (other than absolute senior leadership who are still there and clearly support this) have left. The DTM is a transitory document, so something, be it Terry's document or something coming out of USD Policy as Wired suggests, will eventually replace it.  This is one of those policies where its really important to keep tracking, and to ensure that the Pentagon stays on record for what its upcoming plans are.
Comment by Alexander B. Howard on January 20, 2011 at 1:31pm

Wrote up a piece with official Pentagon response: Department of Defense: access to Internet-based capabilities is cri...

"In 2011, Internet-based capabilities, including social networking, are no longer a “nice to have” at the Department of Defense. According to official documents, policies statements, and the example set by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, these capabilities can and do contribute to the missions of the Pentagon. Yes, loose tweets may sink fleets, as a read of the U.S. Navy social media handbook reminds sailors, but the opportunities appear to balance the risks.'

Comment by Aldo Bello on January 20, 2011 at 12:58pm
Noel...thanks for the update on this situation...I was first made aware via a Federal Computer Week article that referenced this blog post as well as the Wired article mentioned in the thread below.  Ultimately, for reasons too numerous to elaborate, permanently shutting access to social network sites is impossible, it just simply can't be done.
Comment by Noel Dickover on January 18, 2011 at 4:30pm

Rob, I'd love to see some research and in-depth reporting on the impact of the whole wikileaks thing as it pertains to the larger USG conversation of moving from a "Need to Know" to a "Need to Share" posture.

Comment by Rob Rapanut on January 16, 2011 at 5:02pm
I hope this fear of social media has not been exacerbated by the whole wikileaks saga. A thoughtful policy should balance the need for social media, OPSEC and INFOSEC in a post-wikileak environment. You already articulated some reasons that mission is assisted by social media. A revert back to no social media is tatmount to taking the easiest way out or lowest common denominator, I hope this does not stifle creative and innovate business model or ideas.
Comment by GovLoop on January 16, 2011 at 12:44pm

Love this comment.  I've tried to explain this to people as well and they are just starting to get it.  Is Washington Post blocked cause it has FB connect in the comments?  Wired magazine cause of social integratin

 

"It's my belief that even if the DoD tried to block all access to social networking sites it would be a never ending and ultimately unsuccessful battle as social is becoming a core component of the web itself."

Comment by Noel Dickover on January 14, 2011 at 2:21pm
Sorry, here's the latest wired post on this. 
Comment by Noel Dickover on January 14, 2011 at 2:20pm
Interesting. Wired's latest post indicates that the Pentagon's Cyber-Policy arm will be in charge of the follow-on issuance (and that Sumit Agarwal may be involved).  This seems different with what Terry was indicating, which is that his Instruction, which is largely already done, will be used.  Terry, is this just wierd wording on Wired's part or is this a change from what you indicated?
Comment by Stephen Peteritas on January 14, 2011 at 9:52am
Just want to say big props to Terry for coming in and being so active in this discussion providing answers. Exactly what GovLoop is designed for! THANKS

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