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Social Software Keys Information Sharing, Security, Researchers Say

John Ohab - Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 3, 2009 - Social software such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter may close information gaps on the battlefield by advancing collaboration and information sharing among warfighters and analysts, according to researchers at the National Defense University.

"Social tools ... give people platforms to share information with each other in ways that you really can't do with e-mail or some more traditional forms of communication," said Mark Drapeau, associate research fellow at NDU's Center for Technology and National Security Policy during an April 1 "Armed with Science" audio webcast on Pentagon Web Radio.

"Every warfighter wants the right information at the right time, but in many cases it is very hard to know what the 'relevant' information is in advance," Drapeau said. "Social software can facilitate simple sharing of possibly relevant information to supplement traditional methods, yielding better knowledge for better decision-making."

Social software encompasses a broad range of tools that connect people and promote information sharing over networks such as the Internet. These tools include social networking, video and photo sharing, blogs, wikis, and instant messaging.

While many social software tools are freely available to the public, cyber security concerns, infrastructure limitations, employee demographics and existing federal policy have hindered the integration of these tools in the federal workplace.

"[The Defense Department] is simply the largest organization in the world. Large organizations, in general, are not very good at sharing information," Drapeau said.

Drapeau is working with Linton Wells II, former chief information officer for the Pentagon, on a soon-to-be published research paper that proposes a framework for how the department can use emerging social software to increase information sharing, transparency, and engagement with the public. The paper will address the national security and intelligence concerns that have limited the use of these tools, he said.

Drapeau compared the balance between information sharing and security to the balance between inhaling and exhaling. "We need both," he said.

"While cyber security is a very serious and important issue, completing your mission is a more serious and important issue," Drapeau said. "People need access to tools that will help them accomplish their mission."

Social software has played a role in a number of international events with U.S. national security implications. During last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, citizens used the micro-blogging platform, Twitter, to share information about the events as they happened in real-time. In March, the State Department used Twitter to deny rumors that could possibly have led to a siege on the American Embassy in Madagascar.

The push to incorporate social software into the Defense Department is in line with a memo President Barack Obama issued in January, "Transparency and Open Government," which directs leaders to foster in their agencies a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration by leveraging emerging information technologies, including social software.

Drapeau said this effort extends beyond just allowing the use of social software in the department.

"It means the government being more accountable to the people, being more transparent to the people, and working better with the people," he said.

(John Ohab holds a doctorate in neuroscience and works for the Defense Media Activity's Emerging Media directorate.)

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