Army ends ban on Facebook, Flickr, other social media sites

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Updated Friday, June 12, 2009 at 10:30 a.m. EST

Certain U.S. Army bases that formerly blocked access to Web 2.0 sites now permit users to surf to sites such as Facebook and Flickr.

An order, dated May 18 from the Army's 93rd Signal Brigade to all domestic Army Directors of Information Management and obtained this week by Wired, states that certain social media sites and web-based email will be made available for all domestic military campus area networks. Permitted sites include Facebook, Delicious, Flickr, Twitter and Vimeo. The order also states that these sites must also be unblocked on mobile applications.

“It's a recognition that soldiers are using Facebook and Twitter as part of their jobs, not just for recreation,” Marcus Sachs, director of the SANS Internet Storm Center and a retired Army officer, told SCMagazineUS.com Thursday.

The order was made to “leverage social media sites as a medium to allow soldiers to ‘tell the Army story' and to facilitate the dissemination of strategic, unclassified information,” the order states. Even before this order, a number of official U.S. Army social media pages were set up on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr, intended to promote soldiers' stories to civilians, according to the U.S. Army website.

Steve Bullock, strategic communication and planning officer for the 7th Signal Command, told SCMagazineUS.com Friday that the order applies to unclassified Army networks.

Bullock said that some bases may still block these sites but currently there is an effort underway to move all Army networks in the continental United States under the control of the 7th Signal Command, so eventually all networks will fall under a web filtering standard.

The order from the command is the result of a 100-day plan that it is executing to improve service for network users, Bullock said.

“It was an effort to address inconsistent decisions on what should be blocked and what shouldn't be blocked,” Bullock said.

He said the benefit is that now the internet is more "dependable and consistent" for users as they move around from post to post.

The decision to allow social networking sites is one that requires striking a balance between allowing technology that the soldiers are familiar with and want to use versus the dangers social media sites present, Sachs said.

The biggest concern is that sites such as MySpace and Facebook have been known for hosting malware, he said. Keeping these sites blocked is a good defense to keep networks free of infection, but such a move cuts down on how efficient soldiers can be.

Another worry is the possibility that confidential data can be leaked on these sites, Sachs said. The Army will have to teach soldiers how to appropriately use social networking sites.

“We don't need someone in their foxhole Twittering about the enemy they are looking at 100 yards in front of them,” he said.

Not all Web 2.0 sites will be permitted. The order said sites such as YouTube, 1.fm, Pandora, Photobucket, MySpace, Live365, hi5, Metacafe, MTV, BlackPlanet, StupidVideos and Filecabi, must remain blocked. Also, the order does not apply to all overseas bases, Bullock said.

Last December, the U.S. Department of Defense banned USB drives and other removable media devices after a worm infiltrated Army networks. Reportedly, a variation of the worm “W32.SillyFDC” was targeting thumb drives and other removable media and spreading through military networks.
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