Can Social Networking Literally Sink a Ship?

In the military, badges are a sign of accomplishment and prestige, just as long as they're not from Foursquare. So says the U.S. Air Force, which has issued a warning to troops that using the popular location-based social networking site, and others like Facebook, could reveal their location to the enemy.

In the military, badges are a sign of accomplishment and prestige, just as long as they’re not from Foursquare. So says the U.S. Air Force, which has issued a warning to troops that using the popular location-based social networking site, and others like Facebook, could reveal their location to the enemy.

The warning, noted in a November 5th memo posted on the Air Force’s internal Web site and sent to commanders, cautions troops that “careless use of these services by airmen can have devastating operations security and privacy implications.”

Geo-location sites like Foursquare, Loopt, Facebook Places and Gowalla are the latest trend in social networking and allow users to “check in” and share their location with friends. The applications are precise enough to pinpoint a person’s location on a map.

The military is concerned that a serviceman or woman “checking in” from Afghanistan or Iraq, for example, via their Blackberry or other smart phone could inadvertently allow enemy forces to use those networking services to track and attack troop members.

The missive is a recognition that the same technology that helps troops stay connected stateside and could be a boon on the battlefield, helping U.S. troops identify the enemy, can also backfire.

The threat is such that the Associated Press reports the U.S. Army plans to issue a similar missive next month.

The U.S. military currently has 95,000 troops serving in Afghanistan and nearly 50,000 in Iraq.

The warning is the latest in the military’s ongoing struggle to balance freedom of speech with concern for military leaks. It also represents the service’s struggle to harness online technology whose development could, at the same time, be helpful in the battlefield.

Tweets from the battlefield by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) keeping constituents apprised of his whereabouts in Baghdad in February 2009 prompted the Department of Defense to review its social networking policies.

Following a detailed review, the Pentagon opened the door to Web 2.0 earlier this year, allowing troops to blog, Tweet and update their Facebook accounts on the military’s non-classified computer network, but with caveats.

“Commanders at all levels and heads of DoD components will continue to defend against malicious activity on military information networks, deny access to prohibited content sites (e.g., gambling, pornography, hate-crime related activities), and take immediate and commensurate actions, as required, to safeguard missions (e.g., temporarily limiting access to the Internet to preserve operations security or to address bandwidth constraints),” the DoD said.