We’ve all been warned, and for the most part are aware of the privacy and security risks associated social media when we share our personal information and whereabouts with the online world. But last week, the United States Army sent another message to troops, urging them to be cautious with their usage of social media and sharing their location, warning that it could cost them their life.
Highlighting the dangers, an article recently posted to the Official Home Page of the United States Army noted an incident that occurred in 2007 when soldiers took pictures of a new fleet of AH-64 attack helicopters that arrived on base in Iraq and posted them to the Internet. Little did the soldiers know, the pictures contained the exact location of the helicopters inside the base, and provided the enemy with the exact coordinates which enabled them to conduct a mortar attack and destroy four of the Apaches. The Unit cost for an Ah-64 Apache is listed at about $20 million.
Could the enemy have found out this information other ways or could it just have been a lucky attack? Who knows, but the Army maintains that it was a direct result of confidential location information leaking out via social media.
The biggest danger, the Army warns, comes not through using basic social media functions such as posting notes to friends or sharing links, but rather using applications that make use of geo-tagging or “location-based” social media applications. Common applications that share user location include Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla, SCVNGR, Shopkick, Loopt and others.
“A deployed service member's situational awareness includes the world of social media. If a Soldier uploads a photo taken on his or her smartphone to Facebook, they could broadcast the exact location of their unit,” Steve Warren, deputy G2 for the Maneuver Center of Excellence.
"Today, in pretty much every single smartphone, there is built-in GPS," Warren said. "For every picture you take with that phone, it will automatically embed the latitude and longitude within the photograph."
"Is a badge on Foursquare worth your life?" According to the article published on Army.mil, that was the question posed by Brittany Brown, social media manager of the Online and Social Media Division at the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs.
In February 2010 the U.S. Department of Defense issued a memorandum providing guidelines for military use of social media, acknowledging the fact that the online communications tools are integral to its operations.
“Our adversaries are trolling social networks, blogs and forums, trying to find sensitive information they can use about our military goals and objectives. Therefore, it is imperative that all Soldiers and family members understand the importance of practicing good operations security measures,” wrote Army Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Peterson in the 2011 United States Army Social Media Handbook.
“When using social media, avoid mentioning rank, unit locations, deployment dates, names, or equipment specifications and capabilities,” the handbook states.
In the civilian world, threats may be slightly different and less extreme, but nevertheless, users need to be smart about what they share online.