IDF Pulls Plug on Soldiers' Internet Access

Citing security and budget, army unveils program cutting off Facebook, Twitter and Gmail, drawing ire of suddenly disconnected enlisted ranks.

The Israel Defense Forces has barred nearly all army computers from Internet and email access in recent weeks, as part of a new program called Global Village, which is aimed at increasing security while simultaneously saving money.

For years the army has been testing various methods to keep its computer networks safe from the outside - from hackers and cyber attacks - as well as from the inside, by preventing the intentional or unintentional publication of classified information.

Soldiers using computers
Hagai Frid

A new threat has arisen recently, in the form of social networks such as Facebook, to which soldiers have posted photographs and operational details that tarnished the IDF's image and may also have jeopardized security.

Last month the army put the finishing touches on Global Village, its name for the reconfiguration of Internet access from the IDF's networked computers.

Under the new protocol, only a few percent of all army computers will have Internet access - and those that do will have very restricted access. Gmail, Hotmail and all other email services, with the exception of the government network, are off-limits.

Career officers serving in operational units, who remain in the field for a week or two at a time, have been quick to make their displeasure known. "In an age when nearly everything is done through email - studies, living arrangements, bill-paying, etc. - it's a very significant detriment to quality of life," said one lieutenant colonel who is deployed in the field. Another officer says the new situation has led many officers to buy personal laptop or tablet computers with mobile modems.

Lt. Col. Gadi (his last name is barred from publication for security reasons ), who is head of information security for the IDF's computer corps, says his department has received no complaints from officers. "Just the reverse; so far we've had positive responses," he said, explaining that Global Village "is designed to provide secure Internet access in the army, appropriate to the threats of 2011."

Soldiers in combat units still have communal computers which provide "nearly unrestricted Internet," according to Gadi, and are open to "Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, everything." Also people in various army offices who need the Internet for their work still have access. In these cases, restrictive browsing profiles have been created.

"For example, these computers don't need Facebook; the only exception is the IDF Spokesperson's Office, where Facebook is used as a publicity tool," said Gadi, adding that certain officers use Facebook as an intelligence tool - for example, to monitor Palestinian groups which organize demonstrations via the social networking application.

A select group of field battalion and brigade commanders, who are deployed for weeks at a time, are also permitted e-mail access on work computers, although other commanders in similar situations but of lower rank, such as platoon commanders, are not.

"The IDF must protect its information in light of the growing threat," Gadi said. "These were the guidelines that were set. Is it more important for an officer to pay his cell phone bill and [inadvertently] open applications that represent a security risk?"

Budget cuts were another motivation for the restrictions, according to Gadi.

The Internet is a very expensive resource, that's why we are cutting way back on the Internet workstations in the IDF," he said. "It's only for those who need it for their work."