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Becoming a social media sap: Part 1 of 4

Social media has helped show the importance of using operations security, or OPSEC, both on-duty and off. All Airmen need to consider privacy and safety when it comes to their social media profiles, images and comments. They need to think like the wolf, not like a sheep. “When posting anything on social media or on the Web, Airmen should think about if they would want an enemy or a stranger seeing what they are about to post,” said Tanya Schusler, the chief of social media for the Air Force Public Affairs Agency. The Air Force Public Affairs Agency publishes the Air Force Social Media Guide that provides guidance for Airmen, families and leaders. The guide is available for free download at www.af.mil. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer/Released)

Social media has helped show the importance of using operations security, or OPSEC, both on-duty and off. All Airmen need to consider privacy and safety when it comes to their social media profiles, images and comments. They need to think like the wolf, not like a sheep. “When posting anything on social media or on the Web, Airmen should think about if they would want an enemy or a stranger seeing what they are about to post,” said Tanya Schusler, the chief of social media for the Air Force Public Affairs Agency. The Air Force Public Affairs Agency publishes the Air Force Social Media Guide that provides guidance for Airmen, families and leaders. The guide is available for free download at www.af.mil. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer/Released)

PEORIA, Ill. -- February 2014 proved social media's power to wreck reputations in the military. Now military supervisors are under pressure to keep it from happening again. They have to teach troops to protect them from themselves.

The Internet exploded on Valentine's Day after a photo of Air Force Staff Sgt. Cherish Byers tonguing a prisoner of war/missing in action symbol hit Facebook. The outrage warranted a public response from the chief master sergeant of the Air Force himself the same day.

Three days later, the tidal wave continued when Army Spc. Terry Harrison posted an Instagram photo of honor guard members in humorous poses next to a flag-draped casket. The caption read, "We put the FUN in funeral."

By February 25, a Facebook page called Military Social Media Idiots was created to expose unprofessional photos of service members in uniform. Its first post highlighted a "selfie" of Army Pfc. Tariqka Sheffey hiding in her car to avoid saluting in the end-of-day ceremony. The page went viral and gained more than 3,000 followers in its first day. It grew to 19,500 followers in the first month.

Social media caused a paradigm shift in mere days. Military members are now under a spotlight at the mercy of the World Wide Web. It is an issue no one can afford to ignore.

There is a concept commanders use to protect a unit's public image, but it may not be widely known outside of public affairs. Now there is a problem, and the SAPP standard is the solution.

SAPP is an acronym for "security, accuracy, propriety, policy." Every official word and photo released to the public is evaluated against these four standards. If something violates one of those principles, it is not supposed to see the light of day. Individual Airmen, however, can escape the reach of public affairs.

While public affairs cannot moderate posts on personal pages, commanders certainly can take disciplinary action when those posts hit the Web. An unofficial image disgracing the armed forces then quickly becomes an official problem.

It only makes sense now for every Airman to understand SAPP. If public affairs would not post a photo or comment because of its content, why should any other service member?

There are guidelines to prevent an instant from ruining a lifetime. It begins with security.

"Airmen shouldn't be afraid to use social media, but they need to consider operational and personal security with every post they publish," said Tanya Schusler, the chief of social media for the Air Force Public Affairs Agency. "Unfortunately, criminals prey on people and can find all the information they need from social media."

Every Airman receives mandatory training on operations security and information protection. They learn how to be a hard target for the enemy. Then some throw the training out the window on social media and sometimes without even realizing it.

The Israel Defense Forces had to cancel a raid in 2010 after a soldier posted the operation's date and location on Facebook. It may sound like an obvious mistake, but all the solider did was update his friends on what he was doing that week while deployed.

Perhaps even more innocent, in 2007 new AH-64 Apaches arrived at a post in Iraq. Soldiers took pictures of the helicopters and put them on the Internet. Insurgents then used the photos' geotag metadata to find the helicopters' location and destroyed four in a mortar attack.

Geotagging, or "checking in," on social media is the enemy of OPSEC, plain and simple. Why would you want to tell the world where you are or are not? Geotagging is practically putting a sign in the front yard that says "PLEASE ROB MY HOME," or "ATTACK THIS LOCATION."

Use caution with the geotagging feature on mobile phones and location-based apps due to the risk, said Schusler, and disable geotagging at sensitive or deployed locations.

Given these examples, how do Airmen protect themselves, their families and their fellow military members? Total Force Awareness training already teaches never to post classified, sensitive, Privacy Act or For Official Use Only information. The Air Force Public Affairs Agency publishes the Air Force Social Media Guide that provides guidance for Airmen, families and leaders. It is even available for free download at www.af.mil.

However, where training leaves off, being street-smart must take over.

Look at your unit commander's critical information list, for starters. It will spell out specific information that should be protected and how to safeguard it.

"Commanders and supervisors should encourage Airmen to tell their piece of the Air Force story," said Schusler, "but need to also emphasize regularly in commander's calls or internal emails that information on a CIL needs to be protected and anything that could compromise a mission or lives never belongs on social media."

Next, use the security settings on your social media sites! There are plenty of websites that offer step-by-step instructions on how to lock down your profile. All it takes is a Google search and a few minutes to enable the protection that could make a world of difference.

While you are at it, change your passwords and scrub your profile of any information that can identify you. The Heartbleed Internet security bug discovered April 2014 left a two-year window in which online information like passwords, emails and financial information might have been unprotected.

Even when using a site's privacy settings, there is no guarantee a post or photo will stay private. When it comes to security, it is better to be safe than sorry. Presume that your career or life is dependent on an enemy, supervisor, or employer being able to see everything you post.

"When posting anything on social media or on the Web, Airmen should think about if they would want an enemy or a stranger seeing what they are about to post," Schusler said.

Think about privacy, security and safety when you judge the risk of your profile, image or comment. Think like the wolf, not like a sheep.

What may seem unclear in the age of social media is really quite simple. If there is the slightest chance a post or photo could be used to harm you or someone else, do not put it on the Internet!

(Information was used from Air Force Times, CNN, Army.mil and USA Today.)

Editor's note: "Becoming a social media sap" is a four-part commentary series written to help Airmen use social media safely.