Uncontrolled use of social networks a security risk for the SANDF


The uncontrolled use of social media networks poses security risks to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and other military forces, according to the SANDF.

Major Gert PJ de Jager, speaking at the recent Electronic Warfare South Africa (EWSA) conference in Pretoria, said that in the information age information and knowledge is easily accessible

De Jager noted that offensive information collection is an important part of military operations and is “a valuable input to determine the outcome of battles and victories.” The aim of information collection is to obtain sensitive or secret information that can be used as intelligence. Some of the methods of collecting sensitive information, specifically in the online domain, are open source intelligence (OSINT), eavesdropping, espionage and social engineering.

Militaries and non-state actors are increasingly relying on social media to obtain intelligence. De Jager said that one major concern is that military members are not happy with the effectiveness of official channels and some resort to unofficial channels such as social networking to convey official information.

With nearly all members having at least one device that has internet access, connectivity is rapidly increasing. “People who tote digital cell phones could very well become the eyes and ears of a watchful society. They could provide information, including still or moving imagery, on events as they happen. Such reports could have excellent geospatial accuracy from knowing where the phone is plus maybe some rough-and-ready range finding from the caller to the event and valuable voice annotation,” de Jager said.

The SANDF should take into consideration that there is a clear indication of the shift to mobile devices as preferred devices to keep social networking activities on, especially among the younger generation. This can be estimated to grow in numbers as younger members join the SANDF each year, thereby flagging it as a possible concern in new developments that current policies do not cover.

“As deployment situations can become very intense and critical to uphold information security it is important to note what method of communication members of the SANDF prefer to communicate home with, as this can cause certain breaches of security.

“The SANDF may not be able to stop every member from participating online in social networks, but it should focus on ensuring that every member is aware about the importance of information security during the use of social networks. It is evident that there will only be more information exposed on social networks as the younger generation increase and mature within the organization, therefore it is essential to supply them with the correct knowledge of social network risks and implications,” de Jager said.

He added that modern information security challenges are compounded by today’s digital lifestyle which is seeing the blending of corporate and personal lives, inconsistent enforcement of policies, lack of control over devices and covert attacks.

“Even though members are aware about disclosure of official information 75% of members agree that the current communication systems (letters, landlines, lotus notes, etc.) of the Army are not sufficient to reach the correct people in time for official communication. To save time nearly half of all members make use of social network applications to inform others of certain work-related aspects.”

De Jager recommends that information security awareness and training programmes must be an integral part of development of all soldiers. “In order to have members comprehending the implications of using social networks, it must be explained to, and experienced by members little by little. Dramatic changes will lead to resistance from members and will be difficult to enforce.”

Defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman cautioned that the internet and social media are points of vulnerability, and urged governments and militaries to stay on top of this rapidly evolving sector. “The internet and social media have vastly expanded the distance over which and the space within which the guerrilla or terrorist can act to spread propaganda; carry out psychological operations, including the intimidation of the families of security force personnel; sensitise targeted groups; gain recruits; provide training, even in the assembly and use of IEDs; activate members; allocate target types or specific targets; initiative attacks or operations; and exercise command and control.” None of this, he pointed out, requires large or complex installations.

However, the internet and social media are also a point of vulnerability, as their use can be back-tracked, giving security forces the ability to inject their own messages or disruptive viruses and when operating from a remote area, require the use of satellite telephones or radio, which creates vulnerability to interception, localisation, tracking and physical attack.

For example, Colombian security forces were able to localise FARC elements when they used satellite phones to connect to the internet; and some Islamic State members put out a photo on social media that allowed the US to locate and bomb them.

“The internet and the ever-widening trend for everything and everyone to be connected result in potential vulnerability to cyber operations by both governments and irregular forces,” Heitman cautioned. Some examples he cited included the intense internet espionage carried out by several countries; the denial of service attacks on institutions in Estonia in 2007, which may have been carried out for the Russian government by criminal groups; the denial of service attacks that coincided with the invasion and excision of parts of Georgia in 2008; the cyber attacks on power plants and portions of the grid in Ukraine since 2017; the US cyber attack carried out against some facilities in Iran after that country shot down a Global Hawk UAV over the Persian Gulf; and recent cases of GPS jamming and spoofing.