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Army: Social Network Geotagging Puts Soldiers At Risk

Military warns soldiers and their families that posting location information on sites like Facebook and Foursquare could pose a security threat.

Top 14 Government Social Media Initiatives
Top 14 Government Social Media Initiatives
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Geotagging might be a convenient way for social media users to let their friends know where they are, but it poses a security risk to soldiers and their families when they use Facebook and other online services that use the feature, the Army is warning.

Geotagging uses GPS technology to identify a person's location, often via their mobile device, and it is becoming an increasingly popular feature on Facebook and other social media sites.

For example, it's a key aspect of Foursquare, an online service that lets users "check in" at various places to let their friends know where they are and to enable shops, restaurants, and other services to offer them loyalty discounts and other promotions.

The Army is cautioning deployed military personnel and their family members who use Facebook and other sites that feature geotagging that even actions as innocuous as uploading photos could give away their unit’s location to enemies, said Steve Warren, deputy G2 for the Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) said in an article on the Army’s website.

[ Read about how the Department of Defense is shaking up IT management. See Defense Dept. IT Reform Moves Forward. ]

"Today, in pretty much every single smartphone, there is built-in GPS," Warren said. "For every picture you take with that phone, it will automatically embed the latitude and longitude within the photograph."

With the federal government's increased use of social media, many agencies have released formal policies and guidelines advising staff how to minimize security risks exposed by posting information on these sites.

The military--with its special security concerns--is no exception, and individual branches like the Army and Marines have released handbooks to ensure staff use Facebook and other sites with care.

The military's caution is not unfounded. In 2007, a new fleet of helicopters arrived with an aviation unit at a U.S. military base in Iraq, and soldiers took photos of their arrival and uploaded them to the Internet, according to Warren. From those photos, the enemy determined the helicopters' location and launched a mortar attack that destroyed four of them.

Facebook's new Timeline layout will be especially tricky for the military because of its ability to let users geotag posts as soon as they make them, officials said.

This is especially worrisome because people often have "friends" on Facebook whom they've never met, and geotagging gives away information that people--especially the families of soldiers deployed overseas--may not want shared, said Staff Sgt. Dale Sweetnam with the Army's Online and Social Media Division.

"Do you really want everyone to know the exact location of your home or your children's school?" he said a press statement. "Before adding a location to a photo, soldiers really need to step back and ask themselves, 'Who really needs to know this location information?'"

To protect units and their families, the Army recommended that personnel disable GPS location services on their phones and, when using geotagging on Facebook from computers, ensure that their site security settings allow only people they trust to view their location information.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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