The Indian Navy’s Facebook incident has again brought into light the subject of serving defence officers and the use of internet.
Though not in favour of making cyberspace free for uninhibited travel, I feel that the issue needs to be tackled in a holistic manner by maintaining an adequate amount of discretion but at the same time not losing touch with the necessities of modern life.
Press reports suggest that some kind of action is in the offing against the naval officers involved in the episode. In my opinion, two things need to be examined before the Navy proceeds in the matter. One, whether the information shared was such which was not already available in any public domain including the net or any military-related publication or journal, and two, whether there was any intention on the part of the officers to disseminate such information to persons who should not have been privy to the same.
More often than not, the call for action related to interaction of serving officers over the internet emanates from over-sensitive and touchy seniors who are not tech-savvy. Usually, such actions are merely knee-jerk reactions which are not in tune with the reality of the times.
So what is the way out? I feel there has to be a democratic inter-service debate on the issue and it should be discussed threadbare as to how broad guidelines could be incorporated which bring about a certain amount of cyber security taking into account our requirements of maintaining confidentiality in some areas, but at the same time not overly imposing an embargo on individual freedom and human interaction.
If this report is to be believed, then defence personnel are soon going to be asked not to comment on government or military policies. This attitude itself, in the past, has led to the constant derailment of military service from the pecking order as well as the absence of the military from the wish-list of job-seekers. Lack of discussion on issues affecting service-members has direct linkage with ignorance further leading to absence of exercise of rights where required and denial of benefits– the Sixth Pay Commission and its aftermath bears testimony to what I say. No, ignorance no longer remains bliss. If we continue treading this path, the future is not difficult to predict. Even otherwise, the statutory rules in this regard are surprisingly not archaic, despite the fact that these were promulgated in the 1950s. For example, the only prohibition in the Army is that, inter alia, service information is not to be communicated to the press or published in any book, letter, article or document without sanction of the Govt or an officer specified in this behalf (See Army Rule 21). Hence, there is no restriction whatsoever on discussion of any topic under the sun on any forum, the restriction is only on publication. Moreover, with the advancement of time, discussions on the internet or social networking sites are mere substitutes of drawing-room talk of the yesteryears. Times have changed and organisations must also march on.
Till the time our own decision makers (read imposers) become tech-savvy and net-educated, our military shall remain embodied in a time-warp. The US Army, which is handling much more sensitive missions domestically and abroad, and which has its fingers in many pies, has constructively used technology for betterment and openness. They have an official Army Blog and so do most of the other arms and services. The US Army also has a major presence on twitter while we are mulling banning the entire spectrum of social media.
While writing this, I am reminded of a tweet this morning by a retired officer. He felt that banning or curbing social media could become a major demotivating factor for youth aspiring to join the Army at all levels. This very important aspect is actually a point currently not even on our radar. We must find a practical and balanced solution in consonance with the times which would not only ensure personal freedom but also hands-on adherence to security requirements. If social media is taken as an enemy of security then so could be normal day to day human interaction, all types of computing devices and mobiles. Would be, or could we ban those too?