The anonymity of Special Forces operators is at risk as enemies hone their ability to glean online data of SOF personnel that can be bought or sold by private individuals or terrorist groups.
"It's going to be very hard in the future for anyone to be clandestine," said Robert Newberry, director of the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. "How do you disappear?"
Adapting new ways to stay ahead of enemies in an increasingly digital world is one of the most significant challenges U.S. Special Operations Command faces today, according to a panel of special operations technology experts.
The panel, which explored future special operations technology policy and requirements, was part of the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict symposium held by the National Defense Industrial Associates in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
"Our special operations forces will need to employ, and they will be confronted by, an almost unimaginable deluge of data and an unprecedented technological capability," moderator Dave Verhey, Managing Partner of Argent PLLC, told a mixed audience of defense contractors and Special Operations Forces community members.
"We've taught the shooter to shoot, but now what? That's the next step: teach these guys how to operate in this environment," Newberry said.
The CTTSO trains Special Forces personnel in using technology to anonymously collect data from open source social media. Having the information, however, doesn't imply having the ability or legal authority to act on it.
"You see the social media terrorists are using: planning events, communications, sharing information, propaganda, recruiting," Newberry said.
"We can detect it pretty well, but we're not sure what to do about it."
At the heart of cyber warfare is the expanding use of cloud computing: the ability to centralize data on remote servers. Accessing the information on the internet, however, leaves a footprint or "digital exhaust," which allows metadata to be collected about the user.
"The cloud will empower small groups and individuals to do exceptional things," Global Impact, Inc. CEO Matthew Freedman said.
"It will allow SOF to better identify and track [targets] using various technologies, but it also has a cost because the bad actors can also use them."
Metadata can also be gathered against SOF personnel, making getting a hold of latest masking technologies critically important.
"SOF needs to rethink its acquisition strategy from one of a requirement of things to an acquisition of capabilities," Freedman said.
An additional challenge for USSOCOM in confronting asymmetrical or unconventional threats is discerning who it can or can't collect information on.
While private citizens are free to look at any publicly available Twitter feed or Facebook page, U.S. military and intelligence professionals are restricted from collecting information on U.S. persons.
"Does just looking at an email address tell us who is or isn't a U.S. Person?" asked Navy Capt. Todd Huntley, head of the National Security Law Department, International and Operational Law Division of the Navy Judge Advocate General.
"Does that really work in the Twitter and Facebook age or in some of these other uses of social media, where there is no way to distinguish who is a U.S. person and who is not a U.S. person?"
Huntley noted that current intelligence oversight on U.S. persons is based on Department of Defense Directive 5240.1, which dates from December 1982.