Saturday, August 21, 2010

Facebook Vigilance

It is not easy meeting girls as a soldier. So when gorgeous female strangers request to become my friend on Facebook, it is easy to say yes. Especially when the girls, whose profiles always depict a curvaceous babe, list their alma mater as Baltimore Hebrew University and other very Jewish academic institutions. Strange, I wonder to myself as I deny their request for online friendship, all those years as a student in Baltimore and I never knew how many cute girls were studying for an advanced degree in Jewish Studies down Park Heights Ave.

The most curious part about these girls, and the reason I deny their requests without a second thought, is the names of their listed Facebook friends. No Sara Raizels or Rochel Lay'as here. In fact, they never have any female friends. Instead their online buddies are a bunch of Beirut based guys named Mohammad or Ahmed, with the occasional Abu Jihad thrown in for good measure. Aka, Hezbollah techno-terrorists fishing for info. So much for online romance.

The lame attempts to access my personal information on Facebook disguise a real threat. Not that I have any information or images about the army on my online profile. The danger comes from the facts that way too many Israeli soldiers do place way too much personal information online in the public domain. Such thoughtless online activity has led to a series of minor catastrophes. In March, the IDF was forced to cancel a raid after a soldier wrote about the upcoming mission on his Facebook page. In July, the Israeli media had a field day when they discovered that alumni of a secret IDF base formed a Facebook group to trade pictures and stories. And this week, another media firestorm erupted when the papers caught wind of the pictures a former female soldier had posted to her Facebook depicting her standing next to blindfolded captive Palestinians. In a Abu Ghraib conscious climate, the humiliating images did little to help Israel's global image.

I was reminded of my own run-in with the Hizbollah geek squad in a comment from a member of Israel's own cyber unit. "Beyond national security, it is also a safety issue. Hizbullah operatives set up profiles pretending to be Israeli women and ask to be friends with soldiers or join soldiers’ groups on Facebook. Over time, through the status updates, Hizbullah learns a bit about the soldiers, where they live and are able to connect the dots. In theory, they could eventually kidnap that person."

This theory turned to tragedy with an Israeli teen named Ofir Rahum. In January 2001, Ofir traveled to Jerusalem to meet a young woman with whom he had conducted a relationship over the internet. The woman turned him over to Palestinian terrorists. Hours later the boy's bullet riddled body was discovered outside Ramallah. A tragedy that began with an innocent friend request from a young lady not unlike my Beirut babes.

The IDF is very aware of the dangers posed by Web 2.0 information sharing. My unit probably stresses the importance of operational security more than your average brigade. Yet the challenge remains difficult. In the words of the IDF cyber-warfare officer quoted above:

"It’s a significant problem for the IDF because soldiers have cellphones and any of them can take a photo or make a film and upload it to the internet. Soldiers themselves don’t really know what can cause harm. For example, a soldier might think that a simple photo of a room inside a base is harmless, but there is a poster on the wall with a map or operational details."

Some advice:

(a) Do not advertise your Israeli armyhood all over your online profile, if at all. Pictures in green, army related status updates, etc. Being proud does not have to mean being dumb.

(b) Be skeptical of anyone you do not know personally who takes too much interest - through email, cold calls, weekend run-ins - in your army doings. Even if the interested party is a seminary girl. Because not all dangers have a terrorist address.

(c) Confidence & Humility. As always.

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