In the alphabet soup of acronyms thrown at us by the military, it can sometimes be difficult to understand what they all mean. You may have been instructed to follow OPSEC by someone in the military community, but do you really know what that means? Sometimes the military forgets to break out the acronyms and explain them to families at events like the Yellow Ribbon or a briefing. This post can help you understand what OPSEC is and how to make it a part of your everyday life. It is important that we encourage each other to practice OPSEC. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, "Three can keep a secret when two are dead." When you share information, you share control over its security. By educating each other, we can help prevent information that could harm us from being shared with the wrong people.
What are OPSEC and PERSEC? The acronyms mean Operational Security and Personal Security, i.e. processes for maintaining information security. Safekeeping of information protects our brave soldiers, but also you and your family. These aren't new concepts - many of us are familiar with the expression loose mouth sinking ships. A simple example: would you tell a complete stranger your home address and that you will be away for three weeks over the holidays? Generally not, because you don't want to risk theft. This concept also applies to military operations. There are spies, terrorists, criminals and the like who want to use the information we publish against us, so let's not help them.
Let's unpack OPSEC a little more and explain why information security is so important. OPSEC guidelines are designed to prevent losses. This can be a waste of time for our family members as they cannot come home as planned. For example, one of our unit's sister companies took several days to return home after deployment as soldiers and family members shared deployment dates and flight information on social media groups. In other cases, information led to deaths. There are several cases where mission details, photos and the like were shared online, which directly led to attacks on our troops. A widely publicized incident occurred in 2007 when soldiers released images of Apache helicopters and their overseas base. The insurgents were able to search the internet, find the photos and view the metadata of those photos to find the exact location of the helicopters. The insurgents then used this information to stage an attack that destroyed four of the helicopters. So many stories are told in the military community about information being shared between military members and family members or friends back home, being shared either on social media or in the public where it was heard/seen, potentially leading to an attack. While such a thing is a worst-case scenario, it's more likely to force the military to take mitigating measures, which could result in delayed missions, troop movements, communications failures, or homecoming. The bad guys (our enemies, criminals, etc.) of this world are listening everywhere, scouring the internet, and putting together various sources to find ways to harm us.
Here are some general OPSEC rules anyone can follow to protect us and keep information away from anyone who could harm us. What we post, email, text, and say can be shared, hacked, and heard, so these tips are important and shouldn't be ignored. I acknowledge that some of these suggestions may go against the social norm of posting and sharing anything. But you can swim against the current to keep that information safe and still share your life with family and friends.
Never share exact dates, locations, or discuss troop movements
This includes posting on the internet, messaging, making phone calls, and in public. Your information is rarely private. Even closed groups are not 100% secure. You are always just a screenshot away from becoming a source of leaked information. Information such as round trip times, flight numbers, stopovers, number of people on board is confidential information and should never be shared. If you do receive this information, do not share it with anyone else (remember, once you share information, you share control of its security). Even giving the country's location and vague numbers like a month remaining can leave clues for the enemy to combine with other information from other sources. This also applies to movements and training in the United States. I know it can be difficult not knowing exactly where our service representatives are located, especially while on the job, but if they are unable to share this information or are vague with the information they are sharing with you, please consider that this is for everyone's safety. We must not pressure anyone to obtain this information, and no one should pressure you to share this information.
Never discuss injuries or deaths
Whether your military is at home, at school, or on the field, you should avoid discussing or posting about an injury or death. There have been many cases where a military member has been injured or killed and the family found out before being notified through official channels. I don't want someone to find out through a Facebook post that their loved one died in combat. I imagine you don't either, but I still see posts on Facebook sharing this information frequently. Too many rumors and poorly researched news stories can be similarly damaging to morale. We shouldn't help spread this. Assuming these articles aren't malicious in order to get ad clicks, they can still be scary for a family now struggling to find out if their loved one has died. Often, these breaking news stories create fear and panic while providing few details. I would like to ask authors who share these stories to consider the purpose of the sharing and I encourage you not to publish them unless it is really useful. I truly believe that the media should defer reporting military casualties and deaths until family members are notified. Often the information has not yet been verified by official channels and has already gone viral. There's no need to share these details right away, our society strives to find out the second something happens and that's not always the right time. The bottom line is to be respectful and allow notifications through official channels so loved ones don't find out about strangers on Facebook.
Never post about their mission or what they are working on
It's never a good idea to share details about your military's current deployment, whether it's overseas or in the United States. We don't want our enemies to know what we do, how we train, or any other business-critical information. As well as not sharing mission information by posting about what they are doing, something we shouldn't be doing. Identifying them as special forces, working the gates, and doing other aspects of their daily duties can leave breadcrumbs for others to collect and use against us and even against them. Things related to their work must be preserved and not made available to the public. Sometimes that means not sharing certain details with the family. If your service member chooses not to share this information with you, try not to take it personally. We must never pressure our military to share details that they should not or cannot share with us.
Social media tips
The most important thing to remember about the internet and social media is that the things you post or share are never truly private. Posts can be shared, copied, screenshots taken and hacked. Even if you have all your privacy settings set to private, important information could still leak out. Make sure all location sharing and geotagging are turned off. The opt-out process varies depending on the device, apps, and social media platforms you use. So do your research to make sure all yours are disabled. This helps keep the information in your photos, posts, and more private, as there's really no need to send that information out to the world. When posting, consider setting the privacy of your post to "Friends" instead of "Public" to prevent strangers from seeing what you post (also remember to check your friends list and remove any random additions that are may have accumulated over the years). Don't check in on social media platforms when you're out or traveling because that tells the world you're not home. If you want to check in anywhere, do so when you leave or when you return home. Another thing to be aware of is who you are friends with on social media. Don't accept requests from people you don't know or who seem suspicious.
If in doubt, leave it out.
If you're unsure about sharing certain information, it's always best to play it safe and not share. It is better not to share than to share and result in something negative. Treat any information shared with you, particularly during deployment, as if it were your social security number. You don't share your SSN with co-workers, friends, acquaintances, or the cashier at the grocery store, so you shouldn't share that type of information either.
things to share
Sometimes you want to share things, and that's okay. I'm not saying you can't share anything. Just make sure the information you share is shared in a way that keeps OPSEC and PERSEC information secure. Inaccuracy is the key to sharing information. Remember there are people listening to us looking for information against you, your family and our military. These are some examples of things to say that don't interrupt OPSEC or PERSEC.
I can't wait to see you!
It's finally almost over!
I'm so glad he's still safe!
I don't know how I got through it all.
Check out all the amazing things we did on vacation!
Leaving out the words that signal you're going on a mission or that you belong in the military makes you less of a target. These examples also provide enough information for family members to know what is going on. It's also okay to let others know that they too are sharing too much information. If you see a family member, friend, or other military family sharing too much, please encourage them to delete the post or not speak out publicly.
PERSEC tips and things to consider
When traveling, save your check-ins, posts and photos for after your trip. You don't want to tell the world that your house is empty. A surprising number of burglaries are committed by "friends" of the victims.
Bumper stickers identifying you as a military person or military family, such as "Half my heart goes out to ___", family dolls depicting military occupations, or "Proud Army Wife" can target you.
Posting about your soldier leaving for deployment, training or other reasons can show the world that you are alone and vulnerable.
Countdowns or countdowns, even posting something as simple as "10" to people you know can leave you vulnerable. If comments start with "You did it, she's almost home" or "Thank you both for your service," people can see them and use them against you. These can also provide data on troop movements. Remember that the enemy puts all the pieces together to see the big picture.
Be careful with the hashtags you use on social media. People can search hashtags to get information for use by terrorists or criminals. Be careful when using the likes of #proudarmywife #3down #6togo #militaryspouse etc.
Do not share too much with acquaintances or people who do not belong to your circle of knowledge needs. Be careful not to share too much with your cashier or waitress. You never know who's listening within earshot and ready to follow you home.
I hope all these tips are helpful and that you understand OPSEC and PERSEC better. It can be difficult to conform and not share everything in the way our society encourages us, but I promise you it's worth taking every precaution to protect our military, ourselves, our families and friends. It takes 21 days to form a new habit and maybe society will change with us.