Marines retreat from Facebook, will Pentagon follow?

Marines banned social networking sites from their computers Tuesday due to security concerns, and the Pentagon announced a policy review. But Pentagon's top officer will still tweet.

Just when it seemed that the Defense Department was ready to embrace 21st century social media such as Twitter and Facebook, the Pentagon stepped back this week saying it would review its policy on the use of social networking sites.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps Tuesday acted on its own and banned the use of social networking sites from all Marine Corps-owned computers, citing security risks.

The Pentagon has not yet banned social networking sites from its unclassified computers. But in the light of increasing concerns about cybersecurity, it is assessing the degree to which use of such sites make its networks vulnerable to attack. The review is due on Defense Secretary Robert Gates' desk by Aug. 30 and a formal policy – whether an outright ban on or a regulated use of such sites – is expected by the end of September, military officials say.

"There are lots of benefits. It's the new way to communicate," says Lt. Col. Eric Butterbaugh, a Pentagon spokesman. "The issue is: On operational military networks, there are security and technical risks involved."

No policy until now

Currently, there is no department-wide policy governing the use of social networking sites on unclassified computers. (The department's so-called siprnet, the classified network, does not allow connection to such sites and other public sites.) Service members may participate on social networking sites on their own time and their own computers, and any ban would not affect that.

Generally, the only restrictions are for deployed service members who are forbidden from sharing operational details.

The possibility of a broad restriction is something of an about face for the Pentagon. Senior Pentagon leaders have begun to use Facebook and Twitter, building "fan" and "follower" bases and exploring how to connect with troops and the public with new communication tools that are rapidly becoming the norm.

Security risks

The Marines have already made up their minds on the issue. On Tuesday, the Corps issued policy guidance barring the use of Twitter and other social networking sites.

"The very nature of [social networking sites] creates a larger attack and exploitation window, exposes unnecessary information to adversaries and provides an easy conduit for information leakage that puts [operational and communication security] personnel and the [Marine Corps network] at an elevated risk of compromise," said a memo distributed Tuesday to all Marines.

The Corps will allow some of its departments to apply for waivers to the new policy. It is not yet clear how any future Defense Department policy would effect the Marines.

Military leaders recognize the need to connect with the younger generation of troops they lead. Adm. Mike Mullen has more than 4,800 Twitter "followers." When asked in June about the impact that social networking sites have had on him, he said, "I think it's really important [for senior military leaders] to be connected to that and understand it, ... because I think communicating that way and moving information around that way, whether it's administrative information or information in warfare, is absolutely critical."

"Obviously we need to find right balance between security and transparency," Admiral Mullen's staff tweeted on his behalf Tuesday. "We are working on that. But am I still going to tweet? You bet."


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