Here's a scary war story: In 2007, when a fleet of new AH-64 Apaches arrived at a base in Iraq, several soldiers snapped shots of the choppers. Those images made their way online — along with the invisible metadata that gave away the compound's precise location. Armed with that information, insurgents launched a mortar attack that destroyed four of the helicopters.
"It's no longer 'loose lips sink ships.' It's 'everything you do sinks ships,'" says Dave Aitel, CEO of Immunity Inc., a firm that helps companies and government agencies test their vulnerabilities.
Smartphones don't always make it obvious when they're tracking and broadcasting location information. "Geotags," metadata markers that record where an image or message was created, are making their way into photos, videos, text messages and other dispatches.
The volume of information being innocently broadcast by military families trying to stay in touch has prompted the Army to step up efforts to control the practice. It discourages the use of apps and devices that geotag during training exercises and while on missions.
The reminders need to be constant, because social networking has become such a part of military life, says Army Maj. Danilo Green, who is studying at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. When he was deployed to Iraq in 2009, he says nine of 10 computers in the room set up for the soldiers to use would be logged on to Facebook.
"You have to be very careful about mentioning time and place," Green says. "The policymakers are really putting a lot of trust in the soldiers."
Here are five tips about using social networks from USAA member Ashley Caldwell, the wife of an Air Force pilot and owner of the Charleston, S.C., social media firm, The Modern Connection.
- Don't announce your arrivals. If you check into a service such as Foursquare or Facebook Places, do it when you are about to leave the restaurant. You're still utilizing the service, but you're not announcing that you've just arrived somewhere.
- Know who you follow. When using geolocation-linked social media networks such as Foursquare, only follow people you know personally.
- Control your networking universe. Don't connect any of those accounts to other accounts where you might have a more universal following, such as Twitter. Be conscious of where you're pushing your check-in updates.
- Go dark with your location. Turn off your mobile GPS when doing anything work-related — whether you're on base, in the field or elsewhere.
- Put the mission first. Keep in mind that any time you're on a mission or deployed, you're at work. Even if you're stateside and traveling for business, you should not be telling people where you are. Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are for personal time.