12 March 2012

US Army to soldiers: 'Check-ins' can kill

While the U.S. Army knows its soldiers live in the modern world and carry location-aware, socially networked smartphones, it is reiterating the dangers of broadcasting too much information, because oversharing could cost lives.

Reporting from Fort Benning, Ga., Cheryl Rodewig summed it up this way on the official homepage of the U.S. Army: "Someone with the right software and the wrong motivation could download the photo and extract the coordinates from the metadata."

As civilians, we're constantly giving out warnings about the dangers of revealing real-time locations via Facebook and Foursquare check-ins, or via tweets.We also tell you how to disable location tracking in your smartphones. Not only does it make individuals vulnerable to stalking, but also to robbery and other theft, if someone knows when you're not home. But that still doesn't deter many people, who still feel the need to tell us which restaurant they're at, whose house they're visiting and any other venue that they may feel to be of interest.

But soldiers who upload photos to Facebook "could broadcast the exact location of their unit," wrote Rodewig, citing Steve Warren, an administrative officer in the intelligence office of the Army's Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE). Warren gave Rodewig a chilling example of the consequences of geo-tagging from 2007:
"When a new fleet of helicopters arrived with an aviation unit at a base in Iraq, some soldiers took pictures on the flightline, he said. From the photos that were uploaded to the Internet, the enemy was able to determine the exact location of the helicopters inside the compound and conduct a mortar attack, destroying four of the AH-64 Apaches."
If that isn't enough to shake the average soldier into stopping that practice, Rodewig's story also extends the danger to family members of those who serve the country, in that with Facebook Timeline, posts could add up to patterns that those with nefarious purposes could use to harm service members.

As Kent Grosshans, an operations security officer in the MCoE, says in the story:
"In operations security, we talk about the adversary. The adversary could be a hacker, could be terrorists, could be criminals; someone who has an intent to cause harm. The adversary picks up on pieces of information to put the whole puzzle together."
In the spring of 2011, built-in location tracking on smartphones was the source not only of public outrage, but also prompted congressional inquiries that went right to the heart of privacy concerns. And more recently, the discovery of the Carrier IQ key-logging software has also raised hackles, as again, consumers' movements are being tracked without their consent or knowledge.

But now, not only smartphones have built-in GPS --so do the latest point-and-shoot digital cameras.

Soldiers (and their families) should also be cautious when posting any images. It's also probably a good time to really check out who you're sharing information with, and tighten the privacy settings on whatever social network you use regularly.

It's hard, we know, when families are separated and sometimes the only thing that brings them together are those images to let others know they're safe. And it's hard not to share reunions with Facebook friends, but given what's at stake, the warnings from the Army are reasonable and should, at the very least, command a moment's hesitation.

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