U.S. Air Force lets Web 2.0 flourish behind walls

Blogs, wikis and personal profiles promote information sharing, but some fear they could jeopardize operational security

The U.S. Air Force is using Web 2.0 technologies to better support its missions despite wariness about security, a civilian technology official of the service said last week.

The new techniques, including blogs, wikis and personal profiles, are coming out of an initiative by Air Force Knowledge Now (AFKN), a resource provided on the Department of Defense (DOD) intranet. They're helping service members and civilian employees find the information they need more quickly and are now being shared with members of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines, according to Randy Adkins, director of the Air Force's Center of Excellence for Knowledge Management.

Even though the Internet itself was originally developed by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), an arm of the DOD, the military is in some ways an awkward place for emerging Web technologies. User-generated content and social networking have a freewheeling, democratic reputation at odds with the top-down character of the military. Blogs operated by service members have even come under attack as being threats to security.

But within the walled-off world of the DOD intranet, they are helping the Air Force and other services operate, Adkins told attendees at the Social Networking Conference in San Francisco last week. Air Force members can post personal profiles, write blogs and podcasts, and contribute to wikis.

For example, an Air Force security specialist recently was ordered to build an armory in Baghdad, so he went to the Security Forces Community of Practice message board and asked how to do this. An officer at a base in the U.S. had recently built one, so he posted the official instructions to the board along with tips from his own experience, Adkins said.

The response from service members has been positive, Adkins said. About 241,000 of the 600,000 people in the Air Force are registered users of AFKN, and about 5,000 new members are joining every month. Ten percent of members are from the Army or Navy, National Security Agency (NSA) or third-party contractor companies, he said.

But some government officials have been wary of these types of technologies.

The personal blogs of military personnel are becoming an increasing operational security headache, said Rick Estberg, chief of staff with the NSA's Department of Defense Interagency OPSEC Support Staff, speaking at a recent conference for federal security professionals.

Estberg has seen photos showing which types of bullets are piercing U.S. Army Humvees and which are not, information on why mortars are not effective, and data about military personnel in Iraq and their habits that could help terrorists plan their attacks.

Three years ago, authorities caught a terrorist, who went by the online handle "Irhabi007," who admitted to mining blogs for this kind of information, Estberg said. "If one American has lost his or her life because of this stuff, there is no honor in that," he said. "This is sheer stupidity."

And it's not just military personnel that the DOD has to worry about. The blogs of military spouses are also sometimes sources of sensitive information.

The specter of that concern fell over Adkins' project shortly after he launched his own blog on the intranet last September. A colleague at a conference told Adkins that the chief of staff of the Air Force had issued a policy letter banning personal blogging. After reading the letter, Adkins and his team thought about shutting down his blog but decided not to, reasoning that it wasn't a personal blog but the director's blog, and that it wasn't available to the general public.

"People in the Air Force, particularly our senior leaders, are afraid of the Internet," Adkins said. "They're afraid someone's going to post something that's not correct or something that's inappropriate."

The critical factor in the Air Force's new Web 2.0 tools is that they aren't on the open Web, Adkins said. Only service members or civilian employees who can get through the .mil firewall have access to any of them, according to Adkins. That includes PCs in offices, notebooks in the field and systems that users take home to log in securely through the firewall, he said.

The idea with all the new offerings is to help those inside the organization help each other, Adkins said. "The deep knowledge is really not on our Air Force Knowledge Now Internet site. It's really with people," he said.

Being able to share that information is especially critical in the military because members tend to be thrown into assignments on short notice and for a limited time, he said. People are often deployed to do a certain task for just four to six months, and if it takes a month to figure out on your own how to do it, that's a lot of wasted time, Adkins said.

Wikis are a key tool for sharing knowledge. There are about 13,000 work-oriented communities represented at AFKN, each administering its own wiki, Adkins said. Many of the communities take extra security measures, so 20% of the wikis are closed to people outside of that community, he said. Half of all the wikis hide some content, and only about 30% are open to anyone in the military.

Personal profiles let employees find people with the skills they need by searching. Users can fill out the fields they like and choose their own self-portrait.

"We haven't advertised it because we're not sure what people will do when they've figured out we're doing this," Adkins said. "We're already on the edge. We make people really nervous."

Blogs are catching on more slowly. There are only about 10 right now, most by middle managers, Adkins said. He started his own blog last September partly to get news about AFKN out to members and partly to convince other top officials to start their own blogs. Readers of his blog can post comments without a filter, he said.

Adkins doesn't believe it's necessary to review the content of anyone's blog before it's posted, as the Navy does with the blog of its CIO, which is available on the Web. Since AFKN began in 1999, there have been very few instances of people posting inappropriate information, he said.

"There are potential dangers, but I think they're minimal," Adkins said. The problem isn't really the new technology, because military personnel have had e-mail for many years, he said.

A recent addition to AFKN's offerings was RSS, to save users time in checking the various pages they were interested in. But the group ran into a problem implementing the new technology: No one had an RSS reader. They had missed out on this widely used type of software because Air Force employees aren't allowed to install new software on their own PCs, Adkins said. Finally, some members were able to start using it when they upgraded to Microsoft Office 2007, which includes an RSS reader.

One problem that hasn't hobbled Web 2.0 in the DOD is information hoarding, even among different services, according to Adkins. They'll share anything that serves the mission, he said. "People realize that things that they're doing can make the difference between whether you're alive tomorrow night."

Robert McMillan in San Francisco contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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