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.

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