The U.S. Defense Department and State Department are allowing greater use of Facebook and Twitter, while warily noting that social media can be a boon for spies and "compromise operational security."
Last week, the State Department released a manual (PDF) saying that personal use of Facebook and Twitter is permitted on work computers, and the agency "will not arbitrarily ban access to or the use of social media."
It came with the usual caveats for employees: don't disclose classified information; maintain a distinction between an official and personal account; and "be alert to the potential targeting of users for intelligence-gathering purposes."
Anna Chapman, one of the Russian spies who were recently deported, opened accounts on Facebook and a Russian-language site called Odnoklassniki, though it's unclear whether she used them for anything more intriguing than posting photographs of herself posing in front of the Statue of Liberty.
Alec Ross, a senior advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is an active user of Twitter, with about 288,000 followers. The department also has created YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook accounts and distributes podcasts through iTunes. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, sends out messages as "TheJointStaff" on Twitter.
A February 2010 memorandum (PDF) from the Pentagon says that while the military will "continue to deny access to sites" that are pornographic or gambling-related, "limited personal use of federal government resources" to access social networks is authorized as long as it doesn't interfere with official duties.
Before establishing an official Defense Department presence on a social-networking Web site, the memorandum says, it must be approved by the appropriate commander. Once it's set up, the account must use "official DoD and command seals and logos as well as other official command-identifying material," include a link to the organization's official Web site, and be "actively monitored and evaluated" for compliance with security requirements or other "objectionable" use.
Not all federal agencies permit employees to visit social-networking sites at work. Some agencies have blocked them altogether, according to the U.S. General Services Administration, citing workplace concerns of proper use, bandwidth, and security. (Remember the Transportation Security Administration's ban, now rescinded, on Web sites with "controversial opinions" earlier this month? Or how the House of Representatives this month to require porn-blocking on all federally-funded networks?)
"We have a Facebook page," one Department of Homeland Security told The New York Times last year. "But we don't allow people to look at Facebook in the office. So we have to go home to use it. I find this bizarre."
A May 2010 report (PDF) written by Lt. Col. Michelle Barrett in the Office of the Secretary of Defense concludes that: "Adversaries of the United States are also logging in to use and mine social media sites in search of ammunition for their cause against Western democracies and in the hunt for methods of engagement on the informational battlefield."
But the U.S. military's efforts have been limited by varying Web policies, including ones that conflict with each other. Last year, the Marines banned access to all social-networking sites, while the Army lifted its restrictions. (The Marines Corps policy was rescinded in February 2010.)
Barrett calls for the creation of a "unified set of rules" that would apply across the military, saying that enemies of the United States are already using social media to promote propaganda and the military must respond in kind if it doesn't want lies to spread. "Social media gives American service members the opportunity and capability to tell their story and can at the same time decrease the enemy's credibility should they choose to distort the truth of that same story," she says.