Army paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division load onto a C-17 Globermaster III last year at Fort Bragg, N.C. The Army is urging soldiers and their families not to disclose information about travel and deployments online. (Air Force)
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WHEN IN DOUBT
The Army Social Media Handbook is available here. Page 10 covers guidance for soldiers’ personal accounts.
DO & DON’T
The Army’s social media handbook gives examples of dangerous online updates with suggestions for improving them:
Dangerous: My soldier is in XYZ at ABC Camp in ABC City, Afghanistan.
Safer: My soldier is deployed to Afghanistan.
Dangerous: My soldier will be leaving Kuwait and heading to Afghanistan in three days.
Safer: My soldier deployed this week.
Soldiers know they shouldn't update their Facebook pages about last week's ambush or tomorrow's patrol, but the rules about operational security on social media can still be unclear for troops and their families.
"I've seen not only soldiers but also their spouses posting exact dates, times and locations of their soldiers while deployed," said a woman whose husband is with the 574th Quartermaster Support Company at Grafenwoehr, Germany. "A few guys even posted when and where they were moving all of them to the next [combat outpost/forward operating base]!"
The woman, who asked that her name not be used, told Army Times she was referring to her husband's 2011-12 deployment with the 172nd Infantry Brigade.
The Army is updating its social media handbook this summer, months after an updated version of the 2012 handbook went online Jan. 23.
The Army Social Media Handbook is used to accompany several social media guidance presentations for units to use in their yearly opsec briefings. However, the lessons don't always stick.
As recently as Jan. 16, officials with 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, warned their Facebook fans about following opsec rules online.
"We would like to reiterate. Please DO NOT discuss current or potential future movements of our soldiers on Facebook or any other social media site," the post read. "You never know who may be listening and could possibly use the information to bring harm to our families and soldiers."
Capt. Mike Stewart, the brigade's public affairs officer, told Army Times that the post referred specifically to incidents of family members asking for or posting flight information. Soldiers from the brigade are participating in a 30-day "decisive action" training rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
"Whether it is travel for a deployment or training, we do not disclose specific details regarding troop movements as this could endanger our soldiers," Stewart said.
The old "Loose lips sink ships" expression still resonates, but it can be difficult to rein in information sharing when the Internet is everywhere and so easily accessible.
"We're trying to take the next step forward," said Staff Sgt. Dale Sweetnam of the Army's Online and Social Media Division. "The Army's not just going to say, ‘No, you can't just use social media.' Use it, but use it intelligently and with opsec in mind."
While his division provides briefing materials for units, "we encourage organizations to use them, but we can't force it on them."
There is no standard social media training for individual units, but Sweetnam's office maintains a Slideshare site with multiple presentations and the full text of the Army Social Media Handbook, which offers specific guidelines for soldiers on what types of information are appropriate and how to present them.
On top of any posts that might violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Army offers this advice:
• Keep sensitive information, such as schedules and event locations, out of updates.
• Ask, "What could the wrong person do with this information? Could it compromise the safety of myself, my family or my unit?"
• Consider turning off the GPS function on your smartphone or digital camera. Otherwise, coordinates could appear in updates, as well as in the data for your photos. Sweetnam advises soldiers to turn off the GPS whenever they're in a classified environment, be it deployment or training.
• Review any photos or videos you post for identifying information that might reveal where they were taken.
• Double-check privacy settings on accounts. Make sure your posts can be seen only by friends. You can do this through Facebook's settings panel or by individual post, through the privacy button on the update bar.
• Pass these guidelines along to your friends and family.
That last piece of advice is particularly important.
"Spouses don't go through the same training," Sweetnam said. "Occasionally, they divulge information that is best kept secret."
Several responses to an Army Times call-out described that issue.
"Unfortunately, I've seen family members forget that others can see their pages and post personal information, including addresses," wrote Leba Hirsch, Army Family Team Building program manager at Fort Bliss, Texas. "When that happens, it's important to remind them (gently) that they may be sharing more information than they intended.
"Soldiers, if your spouses aren't attending classes like Army Family Team Building to learn these things, you need to make sure they understand this," Hirsch added. "Don't be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution!"
Sweetnam said that although his office encourages company commanders to brief their family readiness groups, as well as their soldiers, there is no requirement to do so.
"We provide the materials," he said. "All you have to do is give the presentation."
In response to 1st Cavalry Division's recent example, Sweetnam said that despite some lingering confusion, opsec violations on social media are becoming less common as people become more educated.
Stewart expressed similar confidence.
"It has been a regular issue since at least World War II, and people just need periodic reminders," he said.