“2nd Explosion. sounds like tank fire”
“If this isn’t the end, it certainly looks and smells like it.”
These announcements and cries for help were made via Twitter during the Egyptian revolution in January 2011. Despite the government’s attempt to cut off the Internet, protesters still managed to be heard using their phones and other mobile devices.
Political unrest throughout the world has only increased visibility for platforms like Twitter and Facebook. These and other social media tools have become critical elements of conflict – for rebels as well as governments themselves.
Networking equipment manufacturer Cisco estimates that the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the global population in 2012. The increasing amount of online activity has put countries around the world in a “cyber arms race,” according to James Jay Carafano, author of Wiki at War: Conflict in a Socially Networked World.
“People get it that the Internet was changing how we do business, and the Internet was changing how we date,” Carafano said. “I think after the  Iranian revolution people got it that the Internet was going to change national security. [It] can affect the stability of states.”
Steven Bucci agrees. After 28 years in the Army and a stint with the Department of Defense, Bucci joined IBM to work with the company’s cybersecurity team. He said spending a majority of his professional life “being a threat rather than trying to stop the threat” has given him a unique perspective on cybersecurity.
“Cybersecurity touches everybody – every agency in government and every business that’s out there,” Bucci said. “Social networks and social media are the way we operate today, not just the way we communicate.”
However, Bucci said, the U.S. government is not set up well to deal with it. Because of the fast pace of global technology, “we can fall behind very quickly,” Bucci said.
“The people who know how to use social media use it to their advantage and are more productive,” he continued. “The United States needs to empower [these] people, keeping them within certain limits so we do it correctly.”
Government riding the ‘Loop’
One person the government has already inspired is Steve Ressler. A former employee at the Department of Homeland Security, Ressler was frustrated with the lack of connectivity between departments when he tried to complete audits and other tasks.
Out of frustration came creativity – Ressler founded GovLoop, famously known as “Facebook for government.” He now serves as the site’s president.
“We really needed a social network for knowledge sharing,” Ressler said. “LinkedIn, for people, is a Rolodex; Twitter is very interactive. People are going [to GovLoop] to do their job better, which is a very different functionality and engagement level.”
Since it began in 2008, GovLoop has gained more than 50,000 members. Ressler said he hopes that his site will help the government in getting on the cutting edge of social media and using it as a force for good.
“We need to think really strategically about these social networks because we’re not fighting hierarchical wars anymore, we’re working with networks,” Ressler said.
Once he created the site, Ressler received membership requests from some foreign friends. Since connecting with him, groups in Australia, Israel and the Netherlands have created sites similar to GovLoop in their own countries.
“Every country seems to have the same problem [I had when creating GovLoop]– trying to solve problems and work to connect people in government,” Ressler said. “The things we criticize the U.S. government for are the exact same across the globe. It’s been interesting to see how social media works that way.”
“The jungle is neutral”
Another thing that remains fairly consistent across the globe is that the Internet exists to be used by all – no matter the intent.
“Once you have the technology, you use it any way you darn well please,” Bucci said. “Technologies can be used by people with fewer scruples to oppress their people rather than protect them.”
Many dubbed the 2011 uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a “Twitter revolution.” The government, unprepared to deal with the amount of online activity surrounding the uprising, tried to solve its problem by shutting off the Internet. The move proved to work against the government, which then was unable to run the country.
Advanced cyber techniques also provided ammunition for WikiLeaks, an online project to leak classified information organized by Australian Internet activist Julian Assange.
“He’s the most prolific spy we’ve ever had by volumes,” Bucci said. “Espionage is still the same as it’s always been, it’s just that you can do it much more quickly, efficiently and therefore damagingly given the cyber techniques.”
Leaks and cyber terrorism have become the facts of life in the 2.0 world. Transnational terrorist networks as well as state actors exist that use the Internet as infrastructure, recruiting, fundraising and otherwise organizing online. Experts agree that the U.S. may have to prepare for a combination of cyber warfare and physical attacks in the future.
“I still think we are going to see cyber terrorism,” Bucci predicted. “I can’t believe that terrorists are not going to try and use this. It’s too elegant, and there’s too much potential there.”
Can government use social media to predict this kind of activity – and perhaps even prevent it from happening?
Groups inside and outside the government have started some of these “predictive analysis” projects. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, for example, examines Tweets, status updates and blog posts from months preceding events like the Arab Spring, searching for trends or clues that could have predicted the event.
“There is a lot of effort to take advantage of this additional information that’s out there,” Bucci said. “Are we ever going to get it perfectly right? No, we’re not, but we’ve got to keep working at it. Our citizenry demands it.”
Carafano said that these projects are worthwhile, but the government should consider using other tools in conjunction with social media to solve the problem.
“The science isn’t good enough to do the kind of analysis on these large crowds that people want,” he said. “But rather than just accept that, we’re going to spend millions and billions of dollars building tools that aren’t ready for prime time yet, rather than just figuring out what the tools are actually good for, and using them for that.”
What does the future hold?
Bucci noted that social media experts are needed to help the government understand the platforms, including members of both older and younger generations.
“Young people generally have no particular concept of security. It’s not in their DNA,” Bucci said. “That requires the ‘old guys’ to understand the issue because, at least for a little while longer, they’ll be making the decisions of how we do things.”