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Policy: Technology

U.S. military is playing catch-up in digital media war

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Opinion,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,Army,Google,Facebook,Russia,National Security,China,Twitter,Technology,Social Media,Magazine

Here is a not-so-secret secret: America's Army in Europe is putting out a contract to scour social networks for information that would "identify violent extremist influences" worth worrying about.

But that's not all. The command also wants information that will help it "engage with local populations" and "build interagency partnerships."

And by the way, the scope of the contract extends beyond Europe, the command's specific "area of responsibility." It's looking for "influences" that might come from Latin America, Russia, Africa or Asia as well.

It didn’t take some whistleblower pirating details from a classified hard drive to reveal this ambitious program. The information comes from an unclassified notice to potential contractors posted on the General Services Administration web site.

It's no surprise that the military wants to take social networking to the Long War. Digital media tools have been transforming almost everything from how we pray to how we buy. It was only a matter to time before Twitter was brought to bear on matters of war and peace.

Exploiting social networks for military and intelligence purposes is a global game. China, for example, has stepped up its efforts to recruit Americans studying abroad as future "sleeper" agents. The top tools they use to evaluate potential recruits? Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and reunion.com.

Foreign intelligence services also use social media to try to get inside our computers. That malware your officemate downloaded by clicking on the email offering "50 percent off pizza"? It might just as easily have come from a hacker working for the Chinese military as from a Russian cyber-criminal or some punk cyber-dude in California.

Intelligence services are also doing the same stuff that big business and political campaigns are doing. The hot thing now is "big data" — sifting through vast amounts of information for fun and profit. And, there’s a lot to be sifted. On any given day, there might be 400 million tweets. When Miley Cyrus performed at the Video Music Awards, tweets soared to 300,000 per minute.

Far scarier than Miley’s twerking, though, is the fact that our government doesn’t appear to “do” social networking exceptionally well when it comes to providing security. For example, the FBI uses social network analytical tools in their investigations, but many of their tools are no better than, say, Klout — a tool available for free to anyone online.

The Army request for bids to provide social networking analytic tools is actually a bit of a shocker -- but not of the type that stokes fears of Big Brother. It's asking for capabilities that are dwarfed by what outfits like Google, Amazon and Facebook use daily to analyze and understand the behavior of their customers online.

What’s shocking is that that charged with defending us aren’t seeking a capability far greater than that of Google. One would wish our armed services sought more effectiveness than that, as well as a much higher standard of accountability. The goal should be to protect the security — and the privacy — of all Americans. This entails strict standards governing the appropriate use and safeguarding of data, as well as respecting our friends and allies around the world.

Whatever one thinks of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, they have clearly demonstrated that the government can be a very poor protector of the data it collects. Some of the most egregious cyber breaches are in government systems -- ometimes the result of poor social networking practices. And some of the programs government uses to interact with social networks aren't even tweet-worthy.

When America brings digital media to war, it doesn't look like much of a superpower.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
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