US gov't falling behind in social-media race, expert says

Other governments and some companies are using social media to address dissent, a DARPA program officer said

The U.S. government is losing a race in cyberspace -- a social-networking race for the hearts and minds of Internet users, a computer security expert said Wednesday.

Other countries -- and many companies -- are using social-networking tools to their advantage, while the U.S. government has taken tiny steps forward, said Rand Waltzman, a program manager focused on cybersecurity at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The Chinese government pays citizens to patrol social-networking sites and dispute negative talk about all levels of government or any aspect of Chinese life, and companies such as Dell and Best Buy are training workers to respond to complaints on Facebook and other social-networking services, Waltzman said at the Suits and Spooks security conference in Arlington, Virginia.

U.S. regulations prevent the government from undertaking similar campaigns, he said. "Any time you want to go to the bathroom, you need presidential approval," he said.

The U.S. will not be able to protect its residents if it cannot engage in its own covert social-media operations, Waltzman said.

Waltzman told about a U.S. special forces unit in Iraq in 2009 that attacked an insurgent paramilitary group, killed 16 of the members of the group and seized a "huge" weapons cache. As soon as the U.S. unit left the scene, the Iraqi group returned, put the bodies on prayer mats, and uploaded a photograph from a cheap mobile phone, he said. The group put out a press release in English and Arabic.

The insurgent group "made it look like someone had come in and murdered these guys in the middle of prayer, unarmed," Waltzman said.

Meanwhile, it took the U.S. soldiers three days to get approval to post their video of the fighting, he added. "In social media time, three days is forever," he said. "The damage has already been done, and there's no way to take it back."

When Waltzman recently asked one U.S. Department of Defense official why the agency doesn't use social media more, the official said the agency needed to gain knowledge before putting ideas into practice. "To do what he's suggesting, it will take forever," he said. "The Chinese, on the other hand, their concept is called practice to practice. Practice makes perfect."

U.S. politicians seem to be conflicted about using social media covertly, Waltzman said. Some denounce China for its social-media propaganda efforts, yet there are several examples in the 2010 congressional election campaigns of astroturfing, of using fake grassroots campaigns to support candidates, he said.

While U.S. companies and politicians use social-media in a variety of ways, there's public outcry when U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies consider monitoring social media or look into covert uses of social media, Waltzman said.

"What you see is this entire social-media space is absolutely filled with hypocrisy and contradiction," he said. "While we have our hands tied, our adversaries -- nation states, terrorist organizations, criminal organizations, any kind of nutcase group you want -- have completely free hands, and are going ahead full speed."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?