Two researchers at the National Defense University plan to release a paper that concludes the Defense Department must adopt a comprehensive strategy for using social media to improve national security.
"This is not just techie-geeky stuff, but serious stuff with national security ramifications," said Linton Wells, a distinguished research professor at NDU who co-wrote the report. "We can't ignore [social media] if other nations are using it, both friends and adversaries. If the government keeps not making use of these technologies, we'll fall behind and be unaware of things that could affect us."
The policy paper, which was co-authored by NDU associate research fellow Mark Drapeau, examines how software applications that allow groups of people to connect and communicate online affects government security and how Defense should use social media in its operations.
Drapeau said the paper is written for senior decision-makers and attempts to answer how social media can help government meet its missions.
The authors divide government uses of social media into four categories: sharing information within the agency or department, or inward sharing; sharing information with other agencies and external groups, or outward sharing; obtaining information and input from the public and outside organizations, or inbound sharing; and sharing information with people outside the government, including the public and other nations, which they call outbound sharing.
The authors cite as examples of inbound sharing the Obama transition team's Change.gov Web site, which allowed the public to submit questions to the president and vote on the questions they wanted the White House to answer, and the District of Columbia's Apps for Democracy contest, which asked individuals to submit applications that could use Washington's government data to provide insight into an issue.
Drapeau said he was particularly interested in the implications of social media for global security and stability. The paper describes how social applications have affected recent worldwide events such as allowing citizens to organize protests in Pakistan, Columbia and Egypt, and providing firsthand accounts of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, and a coup d'etat in Madagascar.
"It's still important to be aware of the power and reach of these tools," he said. "If you work in national security some of these things happening in other countries may affect your job or mission. What's happening over the past couple years is people in other countries are using Facebook, Twitter and blogs to organize. In some cases even when government security knew it was happening, they were overwhelmed by the amount of people who show up."
Jack Holt, senior strategist for emerging media at Defense said not monitoring international dialogues on social media sites to identify potential conflicts is more risky than any adverse consequences that may occur if employees are allowed to use the tools. "Not being involved [with social media] is probably a greater risk than anything you may encounter from being involved," he said. Listening to public conversations and adjusting policies based on what is learned would prevent larger controversies and backlashes against the United States, Holt added.
"I really love the simplicity and power of the four-way matrix they developed," said Lewis Shepherd, chief technology officer of the Microsoft Institute for advanced technology in government. "I think the least attention in the entire social media space has been paid toward the inbound aspect. . . . It's by far going to be the most important aspect. I think we're only in the early days of understanding what its potential is going to be."
The paper discusses the security threats that social media applications pose, but cautions officials against being too quick to say no to experimenting with the tools. "Cyber criminals are explicitly targeting social media sites," said Irving Lachow, an IT security professor at the Information Resources Management College at NDU. "To really deal with the problem effectively, we have to look at people and processes in addition to the technology side of it. Can we create a version of Facebook with a more secure login, tighten the technology a bit?"
Lachow said he hopes the paper will lead Defense to take a more unified approach to social media policy. Currently, the department's policies are arbitrary, with some bases allowing troops to access certain Web sites and applications while others are not.
Defense has progressed in creating social connections with the public and other nations, he said, pointing to the department's program to reach out to bloggers. Lachow said agencies must consider using social media only within the context of their missions, meaning some agencies would be more focused on disseminating information to the public, while others, like those in the intelligence community, might focus on collecting and sharing information internally.
Wells said agencies must begin to formulate the rules are for social networking. "We need to discuss where the boundaries are," he said. "There's a whole series of social rules that need to be worked out. But these tools are enormously powerful, and there's a generation gap in government as to who is using them. We hope the paper stimulates a good discourse."