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How to Protect your Family: The Basics of Operational Security

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Military families are familiar with worry. We know better than anyone in the world what it feels like to know that someone we love is far away and in danger, and that we are almost completely unable to protect them. Fortunately, there is one thing we can do to protect our loved ones no matter how far away they are or how long their deployments are. We have the power to keep vital information out of the hands of the enemy and therefore eliminate a risk to our family members.

The military calls this safeguarding of information Operational Security or OpSec for short.

U.S. service members are frequently warned to be careful what information they share online, because in the wrong hands, even seemingly innocuous details can give the enemy enough information to harm American troops or disrupt a mission. In a reported incident last year,the Israeli Defense Force had to cancel a planned raid because one of the soldiers involved shared his plans on Facebook. Although it may seem that only service members have access to sensitive information, civilian spouses can inadvertently put troops at risk and jeopardize missions with careless posting, too. We have access to more sensitive information than most of us realize: arrivals, departures, and flight itineraries for planes full of troops and their equipment; the size of our spouses’ units; their locations; and even their morale.

Social Media 

As a new generation of job-seekers is increasingly aware, nothing anyone posts anywhere on the internet is truly private, and privacy settings on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms are not perfect (and frequently change). If you post it, someone can find it. As social media becomes a progressively larger part of daily life and an essential form of communication for many people, indiscreet posting can threaten not only your career prospects, but national security and the safety of your spouse.

E-Mail and Instant Messaging

When my husband was deployed, he only mentioned rocket attacks a day or two after the fact, and even then he never gave me any detail about where the rocket landed, how much damage it did, or whether anyone was injured; he pointed out that if the enemy were able to find out that the rocket hit a certain location, that might help them adjust their aim to hit something more vital the next time. Although I was theoretically the only one reading his email, he was constantly aware that he was in a combat zone and his internet access might not be as secure as it looked- so it was safest to assume that the enemy was reading every word. Family members should assume the same thing about internet connections both downrange and stateside; refrain from asking your deployed loved ones questions whose answers might be potentially dangerous, and be careful what you share in your own messages to other family members or friends.

Offline Chatter 
The original World War II “Loose Lips” message obviously did not refer to Facebook posts or Skype. The concern at the time was that troops or their families would reveal sensitive information to the wrong people, even accidentally by talking amongst themselves in places where someone might overhear. Despite the focus on online security risks, phone conversations and in-person chats can still give the enemy information which they can use to kill American troops. Remember that telephones, especially cordless phones and cell phones, are not always secure; treat phone conversations the same as you would treat email. Be careful what you say in a public area, and always be aware of who is nearby and potentially able to overhear information like where your spouse is and when his/her plane leaves.

Basic Precautions

As a rule, avoid:

  • Countdowns or any mention of when your spouse is coming home (including when they are leaving their location or when they are supposed to arrive). As my husband put it, you can talk about where they’re going after they have gotten there and left again. If the enemy knows where your loved one is going and/or when the plane is taking off or landing, it’s much easier for them to plan and set up attacks. Keep them from getting this information, and you can keep your spouse safer.
  • Unit details including numbers and locations. It’s okay to post generic statements like “My husband is somewhere in Afghanistan and I miss him,” but avoid specifics like “I need help getting care packages together for all 30 guys at my husband’s FOB” or “He says the southwestern part of Aghanistan is awful this time of year.” Make sure that you aren’t the reason if the enemy finds out where our troops are or in what strength.
  • Morale, especially if it’s negative. If your spouse is having a bad day, doesn’t like being deployed, or says the weather is getting everybody down, keep that to yourself. It can give the enemy a weakness to exploit, and reading your posts can also damage the morale of the rest of the unit and your fellow spouses. Be positive in public if at all possible.

Your loved one’s life and the lives of his/her fellow service members are in your hands.