Why did FBI urge US troops to scrub social media accounts?

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned current and former service members to carefully weed their social media profiles for information that could attract the attention of Islamic State fighters.

David Goldman/AP/File
Gov. Nathan Deal (l.) and wife Sandra greet US Marines from left Staff Sgt. Shawn Kallmeyer, Lance Cpl. Drew Greene, and Lance Cpl. Danielle Harrington, as banners reading "Welcome Our Troops Home" are unveiled at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Nov. 22, 2011 in Atlanta. Just in time for Thanksgiving, Gov. Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed have left a lasting thank-you to the nation's troops passing through the world's busiest airport.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a rather dire warning to US troops this week, urging them to scrub their Facebook accounts of information that might help Islamic State fighters attack them.

The federal bulletin, sent to law enforcement agencies, tells current and former service members to “review their online social media accounts for any information that might serve to attract the attention of ISIL [ISIS] and its supporters.”

How significant is this latest alarm? In the Pentagon, at least, not very. Pentagon officials say that they are not aware of any new intelligence that may have prompted the bulletin, and in fact have long issued these same guidelines to troops.

“I mean, this is something we’re always doing,” says Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman, which includes advising troops about “how to be smart on social media, with regards to upcoming deployments, travel.”

But this can be done easily, with a few simple measures, he adds. “We’re not telling people not to post family vacation photos,” but rather to be mindful of privacy controls that make sure these posts are only available for viewing by “family and friends,” Lieutenant Colonel Crosson says, adding that this is good advice for non-military folks, too. “Social media allows all of us to put our private life in public – we can post all sorts of information that, if enough of it is out there, can be pieced together and used against us.”

Before social media, such operational security warnings, known in military parlance as 'OPSEC,' focused on encouraging troops not to talk about brigade movements in public places, for example, or “not wearing a flag lapel pin,” says Jerry Hendrix, director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. “Service members need to be circumspect about the nature of their family lives, their identities, and, quite frankly, where they live.”

For service members in particular, warnings about OPSEC have long been the subject of Armed Forces Network public service announcements for troops and their families. 

In the wake of the FBI's and DHS's warning, service members “do well to take that seriously,” Dr. Hendrix says. “I think the fact that they’ve brought it forward suggests that there is some compelling evidence that such actions are being discussed or deliberated within ISIS.”

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