Social networking and operations security: Can they coexist in today's Air Force?

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- About a month and a half ago, when the Air Force opened its network to Internet-based capabilities, primarily social networking sites, it also opened a virtual Pandora's box of questions and concerns from Airmen at all levels.

Can Airmen use social networking during duty hours on their government computer? What type of information can and can't be posted? Do Airmen need to worry about the information they post during their off-duty time? Can any Air Force unit or organization create its own official Web presence?

It's important to provide answers and there are, in fact, a number of new Department of Defense, Air Force and command-level instructions, memorandums and policy letters that answer the important questions. (If you haven't seen the new guidance, talk to your supervisor or your local public affairs office.)

But here's the bottom line: Airmen already know the answers to most of these questions. With the exception of a truckload of new websites that are now accessible from your government computer, not much has changed.

Airmen still need to pay attention to what they say; they still need to protect the Air Force network from viruses, Trojans and other malicious attacks; and all Airmen, on and off duty, still need to remember their core values: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.

To me, the biggest question (the 400-pound gorilla in the room) is: Can the Air Force strike a balance between operations security and the acceptable use of social networking sites?

During the past couple of months, I've spent a lot of time studying social networking and OPSEC. One thing is painfully obvious: social networking and OPSEC are on opposite ends of the communication spectrum. OPSEC is about identifying critical information and safeguarding information that could be useful to our adversaries, while social networking is all about sharing information, and in some cases, too much information (no, we do not want to know what you had for dinner last night).

In fact, during the past month, I've attended several briefings that almost had me convinced to run home and deactivate all of my social networking accounts. Almost.

I didn't actually ban social networking from my life, because I understand the risks, I pay attention to privacy settings, and I'm not likely to post my address or phone number for the world to see.

The information did have a noticeable affect on a few others, however.

During each briefing, as I scanned the audience, I noticed some of the older attendees were excitedly nodding their heads in agreement, while some of the younger Airmen were doing a not-so-good job of hiding their smirks and eye rolls.

The fact is, Americans today are sharing more information about themselves than ever before, and the social networking industry is betting they'll maintain that habit, and perhaps share even more information about themselves and their friends.

After all, in today's age of social networking, information is money. Advertisers know Americans trust recommendations from their friends more than they trust traditional advertising techniques. Advertisers also know many of these peer-to-peer recommendations now occur over social networking sites.

Although this increased sharing of information may not bother many of today's Airmen, it has some Air Force leaders and OPSEC experts worried, and for good reason.

Although many of today's Airmen may not be concerned about broadcasting their personal lives on the World Wide Web, Air Force officials want to make doubly sure Airmen continue to protect information, protect the network, and uphold the personal and professional behavior expected of all Airmen, both on and off duty.

The same OPSEC and information assurance training all Airmen receive still applies, and an Airman's conduct should always be above reproach. In other words, the rules haven't changed, even though the playing field has grown considerably.

That said, social networking is here to stay, and whether our Airmen are at work or at home, they are and will continue to be fully engaged in Internet-based capabilities.

Is this a concern?

It could be, but with the right mix of education and training, combined with some common sense and acceptance, I think we'll manage.

About two decades ago, many senior leaders were concerned about another technological breakthrough that involved the mass and immediate sharing of information. It was called the Internet.

Around the same time, another technological marvel had some Airmen waiving the OPSEC flag. It was called e-mail.

Can you imagine not using either of these technologies today? Before e-mail, Airmen either hand-delivered paperwork to other offices, or they used a large, yellow envelope that looked like it was attacked by a hole puncher.

So, how do we find that middle ground between OPSEC and social networking?

We need to accept that these new Internet-based capabilities are here to stay and will become even more prevalent as today's teens grow into tomorrow's Airmen and today's junior Airmen grown into tomorrow's leaders. We also need to understand that many of these Internet technologies can add significant value to the personal and professional lives of all Airmen and their families, by allowing them to work smarter and faster.

Social networking is a new operating environment. Rather than ignore the inevitable, we need to provide our Airmen the tools and training they need to operate and succeed in this new environment.

Additionally, all Airmen need to accept the fact that OPSEC, network security and our core values will always trump their right to post information on the Web.

The security of our country and the safety of our fellow Airmen are far more important than broadcasting your weekend plans, or what your unit is doing, to social networking sites. Rather than roll your eyes or smirk at the risks involved with social networking, pay attention to the overarching message: filter out the obvious opinions and sometimes-exaggerated examples of the "Internet gone wild," and focus on what's important.

It is the responsibility of all Airmen to understand the rules and how those rules apply to each situation. Whether they're talking to their parents on the telephone, chatting online with a significant other, writing a letter or e-mail to their spouse, posting a photo or video online, or holding a face-to-face conversation with a close friend, it is imperative all Airmen protect information, protect the network, and protect the image, integrity and security of their nation, their service, and their fellow warfighters.