24 May 2010

What Every Soldier's Family Should Know About Facebook

When I started the Red Bull Rising blog in December 2009, I was partly motivated to explore Internet-based tools such as blogging and Facebook, so that I could better inform and advise my citizen-soldier peers about their use. Like most soldiers of a certain age, I'm inherently distrustful of any communications technology that: (A) doesn't seem to serve an immediate purpose; (B) seems likely to leak operational secrets; and (C) is--now more than ever--designed to store and sell users' private information for marketing purposes.

Nearly 5 months later, I realize that Facebook presents a risk more to my family's security than to my unit's military security. In other words, it's more likely that my family will be hurt by information posted on Facebook while I'm deployed, than it is that my fellow soldiers and I might reveal military secrets on Facebook (although that apparently happens in the real-world, too).

And, no, it's not because some faceless marketing mogul might learn what kind of dog food we buy. Before I get to that, however, let me lead off with ...

SHERPA'S FACEBOOK RULE NO. 1: There's no law that you have to use Facebook. While many people won't follow this advice, the best way to protect information is not to participate at all. Don't even turn it on. Step away from the Internet.

Even Facebook's own vice president for public policy has said, "If you're not comfortable sharing, don't." That's good advice, even if you do opt to use Facebook. Just be vigilant to the idea that seemingly innocent information can be twisted and used against you.

Don't believe me? Read on ...

In April, family members of the Vermont Army National Guard's 86th Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), a unit currently deployed to Afghanistan, received phone calls falsely indicating their loved ones had been killed or injured. Even when family members are likely to figure out that such a call is someone's sick, sick joke--the military does not notify next-of-kin by phone--such hoaxes cause nothing but distress, pain, and hurt. Just imagine receiving such a call in the middle of the night. It'd be horrifying.

Here's an excerpt of the April 22 National Guard Bureau news release about the Vermont hoaxes:
“Be careful of social media,” [Air National Guard Lt. Col Lloyd Goodrow, Vermont National Guard state public affairs officer] said. “There are people out there who read what you post, and not all of them are as kind and gentle, or as caring about your Soldier like you are.

“All of our families are deeply proud of what their Soldier is doing, but just be careful about what you put out there.”

Family members should get the phone number of the caller through *69 if they have that ability, he said. The second thing to do is for the family to notify a military organization like their family readiness group and the local police.

“Understand that if your Soldier is injured in Afghanistan, or anywhere in the world, you will not be notified by a phone call unless it is from your Soldier or a friend of the Soldier,” he said.
SHERPA'S FACEBOOK RULE NO. 2: Don't post anything that pranksters, hoaxters, and domestic terrorists--that's what Lt. Col. Goodrow called them, by the way--can use against you and your family.

It's not just terrorists, either. It could be the media.

Once, before the Internet, I wrote obituaries for a living. That was before you could just use Google to instantly pop-up answers to a hundred unasked questions about someone who had just died. If I were doing that job now, I wouldn't even have to call real people. I'd just check out their Facebook pages, write about what was posted there. Maybe I'd e-mail their friends, to see if I could get some easy comments.

SHERPA'S FACEBOOK RULE NO. 3: Don't make it so easy for my friends in the media. Guard private information. Keep it private, particularly for those painful moments you and your family might really need the privacy.

If you and your spouse have publicly accessible Facebook profiles, you may wish to remove all mentions of his or her deployment, unit, and military job. If you have not already limited access to your Facebook profiles to friends and family--and, yes, Facebook does NOT make using its privacy settings easy to use or understand--you may also wish to do that as well.

If you wouldn't be comfortable publishing something on the front pages of the New York Times, the Des Moines Register, and/or the Omaha World-Herald--your birthday, your wedding anniversary, your phone number, your address, the fact that your spouse is gone for 12 months, that your children go to this-and-that elementary school--don't post it on Facebook.

What's the big deal, particularly about kids? Well, if someone knows your name, and your kids' names, and their grandparents' names, and when they were born, and where they go to school--well, I betcha classroom bullies, strangers-with-candy, and other evil people would just love the opportunity to lure them into compromising positions, or to deal out some serious emotional harm. Just imagine: "Hey, Billy, is your dad dead yet?"

Don't think that can't happen. And don't think that doesn't happen, either.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, but as a potential last act on this earth, I will also make darned sure that any photo that accompanies the news of my unfortunate death won't be one that's been grabbed from the Internet, especially one that shows me drinking a beer while wearing a tutu-based "unicorn-hunter" uniform at some random "Come as Your Favorite Constitutional Amendment" party. That's not particularly how I wish to be remembered, and the Internet never forgets.

SHERPA'S FACEBOOK RULE NO. 4: If you wouldn't want your Mom to see the pictures, or have them lovingly displayed at your funeral, don't post them on Facebook.



The June 2010 issue of Consumer Reports magazine suggests these "7 Things to Stop Doing Now on Facebook":
  1. Using a weak password.
  2. Leaving your full birth date in your profile.
  3. Overlooking useful privacy controls.
  4. Posting your child's name in a caption.
  5. Mentioning that you'll be away from home.
  6. Letting search engines find you.
  7. Permitting youngsters to use Facebook unsupervised.


  1. Absolutely true - good advise. Those who are deployed (or soon will be) should follow this advise as well - the Internet is generally available on most FOBs, and FB can be accessed there as well. Don't post it for the world to see - FB is NOT an e-mail replacement!

  2. That's why I got onto Assbook...just a bunch of assholes there.
    No, just kidding. In regards to OpSec, you should really think about anything you put out there in the land of the free internet.
    We actually look up suspects on Facebook before we interview them to see what interest they have etc.

  3. Thanks, Jeff! When I wrote this, I didn't know my timing would be so good/bad. Check out today's news about soldier-deaths leaking to Facebook prior to lifting official news blackouts:


  4. Hey, CI-Roller Dude! We just walked on each other's Internet transmissions! It's just like being on the O/I net!

  5. All GREAT advice with great points as to why we need to be vigilant. It boggles my mind what people post on FB. As you *may* have noticed, ;)I have absolutely NO personal ( or family) information - apart from my blog site - which also has no personal information....lol on my profile.

    My underlying philosophy always is: WHO does it serve? Followed by: Do I reeally need to share that with the world?

    Thank you..

  6. Did you hear about the recent burglary ring involving Tweets who followed celebrities on Twitter!

    Whether it was a personal assistant or the celebrity themselves, a tweet saying, "Leaving now for the party at Spago" gave this roving group of bandits ample time to go in an steal from their homes.

    So, another rule: Don't tell anyone where you're going.

  7. Thank you for the great advice! The first thing I'm doing is printing your post & sharing it with the family. Then I'm going to make changes to all of our Facebook profiles.

    I've always preached the lesson of kids being careful on the internet but as you've pointed out, I need to exercise more caution with posts & info plus there are a few changes I need to make myself.


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