Loose tweets sink fleets. Digitalization, privacy and security in the military

22 minutes to read
Eva de Feber

This paper treats the issues of digitalization, privacy and security in the military. It focuses on the various privacy practices military personnel and their relatives engage in in their military context and how they have been influenced by digitalization.

Digitalization and privacy

Digitalization has strong connections with privacy concerns. While generally seen as enabling efficient ways of storing information and connecting with other people worldwide, digitalization can have negative effects on a person’s privacy. Personal photographs, videos, and communication online are available for many people to see. This concerns many users of digital media, but can especially be worrying for people serving in the military and those in their immediate circles of family and friends. Sharing information and connecting with each other while physically apart may be more important for them, but they often risk much more when sharing information online. Digitalization has strongly affected their privacy practices. 

The Dutch Ministry of Defence has issued guidelines for the use of (digital) media, but still appears to be torn between opening up towards the public and keeping secrets in order not to jeopardize the safety of their military operations and personnel. The Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD), on the other hand, is concerned with finding and tackling threats to the military, and screening all prospective soldiers and their immediate networks because the security clearance is a big part of this process. Digitalization has made it much easier for the Service to find information about people, but at the same time, the issue of privacy makes it a challenging job.

Digitalization has made it much easier for the Service to find information about people, but at the same time, the issue of privacy makes it a challenging job.

This paper will discuss the various privacy practices all these people and organizations engage in in their military context, and will focus on the ways in which digitalization influences the privacy practices of those working in the military forces, and their families. Vincent Miller’s (2011) conceptualization of privacy and surveillance in digital life will serve as a foundation for researching this topic. His discussion on privacy as a legal construct and digital surveillance is especially important when considering the privacy practices of the Ministry of Defence and the Military Intelligence and Security Service. The core part of the paper is divided into several parts, all describing the topic from a different perspective. Recent examples of problems military personnel or their partners have run into are related to digitalization so the issue of privacy will be dealt with in this discussion as well.


Digital privacy practices

One of the most important things to establish in a discussion on the influence of digitalization on privacy is a clear definition of the concept ‘privacy’. It is not an easy matter to provide one set definition, as different people tend to give different meanings to the concept. The philosopher Fried (1970) describes privacy as having control over information about oneself. This theory immediately shows why digitalization and privacy are sometimes seen as almost completely mutually exclusive. Information, once digitalized, is often no longer exclusively one’s own property, whether officially or unofficially. Facebook users, for instance, have been increasingly frustrated with the company using their personal information instead of keeping it safe. Officially, Facebook declared not to sell any of their users’ personal information, but on the other hand, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated that transparency is the new social norm, and users have just been stupid enough to freely hand over personal information about themselves (Tate, 2010).

Fried’s theory and the Facebook example have to do with secrecy. According to Gavison (1980), this is one of three elements that privacy consists of. The other two are solitude and anonymity. Solitude can be challenged by digitalization, as with all the information available online, people can feel left out when they go offline for a while. A related, typical aspect of social media is that they keep asking users to come back to their site. Anonymity, on the other hand, is one aspect of privacy the internet can actually help people to achieve, as it is fairly easy to express oneself anonymously online. With the popularity of social media such as Facebook, however, there has been a shift from anonymous to ‘nonymous’ use of the internet (Miller, 2011). More and more personal information is also being shared online, and this can strongly influence the privacy of individual users.

The two theories on privacy mentioned above mainly focus on privacy from a personal, individual viewpoint. In modern societies, there is also another perspective on privacy because there is a lot of privacy legislation. Jon Mills (2008) considers four categories when discussing privacy as a legal construct: 

  • The rights to personal autonomy; 
  • To control personal information;
  • To control personal property;  
  • To control and protect personal physical space. 

These rights make up the concept of privacy as a legal construct. In direct opposition to privacy is security, and governments are challenged to provide people with laws ensuring both privacy and security. The rights to control personal information and personal property that Mill mentions can be seen as most challenged ones in the context of digitalization. Intelligence services, for instance, are able to monitor digital communications in order to track any behavior they consider suspicious. In this context, Vincent Miller (2011) explains that legislation to enhance privacy demands certain prohibitions, and how this can be in conflict with the right to free speech. In the Netherlands, the main focus is on privacy and not on freedom of speech, so there are laws to safeguard people’ s personal information, including laws set up by the European Union. A problem with digitalization is, however, that many of the companies behind websites and social media are not based in the European Union – let alone in the Netherlands - so they can breach these laws (Gibbs, 2015).


Ministry of Defence

The Dutch Ministry of Defence is responsible for creating the policy for everyone in the military. They have generally had the most trouble with digitalization and the rise of social media because the technology develops so fast that laws can be outdated shortly after they have been issued. Debate and research are necessary to create proper rules, but this process generally takes a lot of time. This also means that military personnel started to use the new digital media in their personal lives, before there were any concrete guidelines on how to handle these media in the context of their military life. The Ministry has surely seen the positive opportunities that digitalization and the internet have to offer. For instance, the military uses a digital software in their operations, data is stored digitally, reports from the ministry can be accessed online and official websites and social media pages are used to convey information to the public and recruit new employees. The Ministry of Defence even has a specific website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts and a YouTube channel aimed at those interested in working for the military (Ministerie van Defensie, n.d.).

Typical for these uses of digital media is that they still conform to the traditional one-way communication the government – and especially the military with all its hierarchy - has always been used to. However, thanks to digitalization and the widespread access to the internet, it has become easier to communicate with people. Information is easily accessible and people expect their government to be more open and participate in discussions with them, instead of only with other politicians. 

The Ministry of Defence deals with difficult, even controversial topics, and has to take good care of security in order to ensure their personnel’s safety. Therefore, this department has not been very keen on the open, two-way conversation the digital media offer. These systems cannot be controlled, and the biggest threat lies in what a military historian Brand (2011) calls UGM, short for ‘User Generated Media’. These are social media sites and blogs which allow their users to create the content of the website. The problem herein lies not with possible outings of criticism against the military, but with – potentially classified - information soldiers could share, for instance, during operations. Their stories, photographs and videos could possibly disrupt the image created by the official military press channels. The military is still an organization that has to worry about their image in society. While different voices on the same subject can enhance and strengthen a view when they correspond, the Ministry of Defence (in the Netherlands as well as in other countries) has been reluctant to find out if this would work for them. The Pentagon has for a while even forbidden their soldiers to post anything regarding the military online without first receiving approval from their commander (Department of Defense, 2002). Operational Security (OPSEC) goes before everything, including the freedom of speech that is so highly valued in the United States. Blogs written by soldiers at the front are considered “a minefield for OPSEC restrictions” (Melber, 2008).

Information is easily accessible and people expect their government to be more open and participate in discussions with them, instead of only with other politicians. 

While fears of insufficient security of digital data can be eased by employing people to keep all the technology used up to date, the fear of conflicting messages from the front is harder to eliminate. The research done by the above-mentioned military historian Brand (2011) provided a reassuring image for worried politicians in the United States. He found out that the wish of the official military press channels to give a positive view on the military in general, and soldiers and missions more specifically, is shared by soldiers who tell their stories online. Exceptions exist, but in most cases soldiers express pride of being part of the military and like to share their stories in order to show the public the good deeds they do. 

This is also the case with blogs and social media pages by Dutch soldiers. They can be critical, but in that case the criticism is mainly aimed at the government or the public in general, for making –what they see as- wrong decisions regarding which conflicts to get involved in or for insufficiently appreciating and acknowledging the value of the military. The soldiers may question political decisions such as the ongoing budget cuts for the military which are an especially big issue in the Netherlands, but they support the missions. The Dutch military is made up of only professional soldiers who choose to be a part of the organization. While they may all have different reasons for joining, for them being a soldier is not just any job: it is seen by most soldiers as a way of life, as something that is part of who they are. In other words, the military is important to them, and this also means that they understand the importance of safety measures and OPSEC. The Ministry of Defence need not fear for soldiers violating OPSEC online more than they need to with offline media, as these soldiers know their own lives and those of their fellow soldiers could depend on it. They have the most to lose by violating OPSEC, and therefore they do their best not to let this happen.

Interestingly, some of the positive aspects of the social media use can also be seen as negative ones, and vice versa: it all depends on the point of view and how the media are used.

The use of social media has positive and negative aspects for any user, personal or corporate. TNO (n.d.), a research organization dedicated to providing companies and governments with applicable knowledge, has worked together with the Dutch Ministry of Defence to create an overview of the pros and cons of social media use in supporting military action. Interestingly, some of the positive aspects of the social media use can also be seen as negative ones, and vice versa: it all depends on the point of view and how the media are used. For instance, cooperation (both internally and internationally) can be enhanced by supporting horizontal communication between different organizations operating in the field. At the same time, this cooperation can be obstructed by the inability to safely share confidential information or simple unavailability of the necessary technology in the operating area. Another remarkable point is that the breaking of the established hierarchy is literally stated under both the pros and the cons of using the social media in military action. Most of the negative aspects can, however, be changed to positive aspects, or at least the risks can be minimized and controlled. The Ministry of Defence can thus relatively safely continue to use social and other digital media in military operations, and allow military personnel to make use of them on their own as well.


Military Intelligence and Security Service

A special branch in the military world is The Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD). Those working for the Service are mainly civilians, but they do have a lot of connections with the military. The strongest link is the part where they screen all prospective soldiers to ensure that they do not pose a security risk and can be trusted to handle all possible classified information they receive with care. This screening also includes a background check on the person’s family and friends, because if anyone close to a soldier has ties to, for example, a terrorist organization, they might use the soldier – with or without their knowledge - to pass on information to such an organization. The intensity of the screening depends on the kind of information the soldier will come to work with, but all military functions are considered positions of trust. Even interns have to go through the procedure. All this protocol serves the safety of the military operations and is quite understandable in theory, but several examples show that reality does not always correspond with theory. One problem is that the massive amounts of digital information make it very difficult to only look at communication that is considered suspicious. Other information will be monitored as well, and it might be very personal in fact. The people working at the Service need to ensure all this extra information is handled with care for privacy as well. At the same time, there is so much information online that it is also possible that innocent messages or search results are combined to look like something suspicious. This kind of information collection may lead to innocent people being under surveillance because something in their communications made them seem suspicious, although they actually are not.

Since early 2015, there have been soldiers struggling to regain their security clearance. They have partners who are from another country or spent several years living abroad. This is not necessarily a problem, but in their case, the other country is one the MIVD does not cooperate with. There are numerous countries that do not want to share their intelligence with the Dutch Service. Information on people who lived or were born there cannot be obtained by the MIVD and that means a security risk. To prevent any military secrets from falling into the hands of potentially dangerous partners, the soldiers lose their VGB (a declaration of no objection, issued by the MIVD after passing the screening). Without this form, they are no longer allowed to perform any of their former military tasks, as they now lack the necessary security clearance. This leads to suspension, or even losing one’s job. These consequences are tough to accept for many of these soldiers, as they assure their partners pose no threat at all. They claim that firing anyone because of their choice of a partner even goes against the European Convention on Human Rights, as this states the right to marriage and the right to respect one’s private and family life. Those who were unaware of the military’s rules on partners can temporarily get a job for which they do not need their VGB, but they can still get fired if the MIVD cannot decide for sure whether or not their partner is a safety risk (NOS, 2015a).

An interesting fact, in this case, is that even the highest-ranking soldiers – like the Dutch Army commander Mart de Kruif - protested against the decision. Their main concern were those soldiers with partners from the NATO ally, Turkey. It is remarkable that exchanging information with the intelligence service of a NATO country like Turkey is impossible, while the Dutch military does cooperate with Turkey in other areas. Cases like these have led to several lawsuits (Groenendijk, 2015). Several months later, most problems seem to have been solved by the soldiers going after the necessary information themselves. They might even drop their cases against the military if they are compensated for all the legal costs and the money they had to spend to find the information the MIVD itself could or would not go after (De Telegraaf, 2015).

This example shows that while the screenings the MIVD performs can strongly undermine a person’s privacy, it can sometimes be argued as necessary for the Service to retrieve more information. Another recent event that illustrates the fact that the Service does not function perfectly is the defecting of a Dutch Airforce sergeant to the Islamic State in Syria (NOS, 2015b). It is discouraging that even a soldier can radicalize and leave to join the Islamic State without anyone, not even the MIVD, noticing what was going on and stopping him. Mistakes like these lead to a plea for allowing the Service more responsibilities. The laws concerning the Dutch security services – military and general - were already considered insufficient in late 2013. The proposed new law allows the services to scan all telephone and internet traffic in or to the Netherlands for suspicious communication (NOS, 2015c). Particularly, the extended powers to monitor online communication can possibly make the MIVD’s job a lot easier. A lot of communication is digital nowadays and as this information is available worldwide, it is possible that this could also (help) solve the lack of information on the soldiers’ partners mentioned above.

Many people also do not trust the security services to handle their responsibilities with care.

The debate on whether or not this new law should be established is still ongoing. A common fear is that more surveillance leads to a loss of privacy. Many people also do not trust the security services to handle their responsibilities with care. This points towards the biggest problem the MIVD faces in the context of privacy: it has a lot of responsibility when it comes to handling personal information, which means it has to be also very careful with the boundaries of this responsibility. The exact criteria they use to establish whether or not someone is a security risk, or whether someone should be under surveillance or not, are all difficult, but important decisions the MIVD has to make. It has to constantly take into consideration the protection of privacy of everyone whose information it has access to, and the massive increase in information due to digitalization has made the issue even more pressing.


Military personnel

Soldiers have a lot to gain with digitalization. They can easily find the information they need, communicate with each other while on duty, communicate with their loved ones when they are away and reunite with other veterans post-mission. An article on the new communication strategy of the Dutch military states the main points of this strategy are openness, transparency and proactive engagement (DenK, 2015). The military encourages soldiers to share their own personal stories with the rest of the world, to showcase their work and tell the corporate story of the Dutch military. Digitalization has made this easy through blogs and social media. Through regulation and proper advice, the military can exercise a basic level of control over what active soldiers post online. The use of digital media by military personnel can help explain what the military does and stands for, and thus help create more support for the military (CGI, 2011). Messages from soldiers about the military also tend to be mostly positive, especially in the case of active soldiers. As soldiers are (a special kind of) civil servants, they are also bound by certain laws concerning civil servants such as Article 125a of the Dutch Ambtenarenwet (Civil Servants Law), which states that civil servants are “to refrain from revealing personal thoughts and feelings that could compromise his or her public service responsibility and the duly operation of governmental service” (Nieuwenhuis, 2013). This is an additional safety measure the government can rely on when giving soldiers - and other civil servants - the freedom to post stories about their job online.

As with the Ministry and the MIVD, there are some negative aspects to digitalization from the point of view of military personnel. They are not so much concerned with writing policy or deciding what is to be considered suspicious information – their privacy practices are on a more personal level. This concerns individual persons instead of an organization, and these individuals have their own way of using digital media. They decide which media they use and what information and messages they put online. As explained above, the content of these messages is generally not negative for the military. However, even within the limits of the social media conduct, soldiers have to be very aware of what they share online. Social media are the most problematic type of media as they often ask their users to submit information about their education, work experience and daily activities. In the case of soldiers, all this information can reveal that they serve in the military. This is not a problem when only their friends and family, who already know that anyway, see it, but they can never be completely sure that this is the case. Mentions of the military, bases or missions can give people with malicious intentions a target. Social media also tend to use GPS to display their users’ location when they post. This can possibly show where a soldier lives, works, or often visits. Such information could be used to threaten soldiers, as has indeed happened before (Klopper, 2014).

More recently, another news article has shown that threats and physical safety are not the only worries digitalization has caused to soldiers. While identity theft is a crime that existed before the internet did, it has made the practice easier in many ways. Daily life increasingly takes place online and without face-to-face contact so pretending to be someone else can go unnoticed for a long time and have severe consequences for the individual whose identity got stolen. Soldiers are an interesting targeting group for online identity theft. For instance, enjoying the reputation of being strong, loyal and physically fit, identities of male soldiers can be seen as ideal candidates for the use on dating websites and apps. In these situations, their pictures have been used online by people pretending to be soldiers to get in touch with other people, for attention or to extort money from them (Van der Veen, 2015). This specific type of identity theft may not necessarily harm the soldier in question, but is nonetheless worrying. Higher-ranking soldiers often cannot prevent their pictures from appearing online, as they have a public function and may thus appear in photographs on official press channels. However, just as is the case with lower-ranking soldiers, they can still decide what photographs they post themselves. The same digitalization that has made soldiers’ lives easier with new, fast, easy and cheap communication methods, has also made them much more aware of their privacy and the vulnerability of their privacy practices.

Soldiers are an interesting targeting group for online identity theft.

Military families

Partners of soldiers have been mentioned above as a possible security threat for operational security, but anyone close to a soldier has to worry about OPSEC. Many of the same issues that soldiers need to concern themselves with are also relevant for a soldier’s family. The American Department of Defense (n.d.) has even issued a social media guide for this group of people. Military families do not need to be overly concerned about their own information online, although they may be subject to threats similar to the ones used against soldiers because they are important in the life of a soldier. The important part that military families do need to worry about is what their online communication may reveal about the soldier they are related to. While soldiers need to be careful in the communication with their families, the families need to be cautious, too. Digitalization has led to numerous ways for these families to stay in touch and keep one another up-to-date, but, for instance, naming where a soldier is (going) or when (s)he leaves or returns can seriously compromise the soldier’s safety. Many well-known vintage posters with slogans warning soldiers’ families to practice OPSEC and avoid careless talk about the military are technically still relevant, but fully following them would mean that military families would not be able to make use of all the positive aspects of digitalization.

Soldiers spend a lot of time away for their job on training and missions, which can lead to their spouses feeling lonely. This is where digitalization offers great opportunities for the military family: finding others in the same situation to talk to. In fact, partners of soldiers have started blogs to share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world. By doing this, they also create a sort of a diary for the soldiers to read while they are away for a mission or after they have returned home. Both partners can feel more connected by sharing their moments apart in this way. Since these blogs often span long periods of time, they can include a lot of details about the personal life of the author, even when the author conforms to OPSEC and does not give away any specific names and dates.

To enjoy the advantages of digitalization, everyone close to a soldier needs to make their own assessment of how much they keep private and how much they feel safe to share.

The contact with other people in similar situations through digital media offers too big of an advantage for military families to not make use of. Next to blogging, they also tend to use different social media to find these contacts. Conversations often start as a reaction to a blog, a social media post or through email. Such reactions can also be indicators to outsiders that the person commenting is related to a soldier, so members of military families have to be aware that they may be disclosing that to unintended audiences. Another problem is that when everything is anonymous in these conversations – because other military families try to keep their military relative safe as well - one cannot know for sure whether the commenter is honest and can be trusted with personal information. This is something that needs to be taken into consideration by the military families especially when conversations get more personal through email, chats or other less open communication channels. This leads to a conundrum: the privacy practices of the military families could potentially harm their privacy. To enjoy the advantages of digitalization, everyone close to a soldier needs to make their own assessment of how much they keep private and how much they feel safe to share.


Digitalization and the military

Digitalization, like any new development, has its pros and cons. These can be different for each person, as each individual may come across different aspects of digitalization or use digital media differently. In general, the main concern regarding digitalization has to do with privacy and security. These concepts are of special importance for those working for the military and their relatives. Digitalization has affected the privacy practices of these people because it has made privacy a bigger issue than it was before. Governmental organizations cannot avoid digitalization and not only do they have to accept that civil servants use digital media to communicate about their work, they also have to actively engage in the digitalization process to keep up with the rest of society.

In the context of the military, the Ministry of Defence has the biggest responsibility. The Ministry makes decisions regarding digitalization in the military and its social media policy, and these decisions affect all the other parties mentioned. This means the Ministry is at least partially responsible for the privacy practices of these other parties. The most important influence digitalization has on the privacy practices of those working at the Ministry of Defence is that it pushes the government more than ever to be open towards the public. The public wants openness in order to understand political decisions, but for the Ministry of Defence this means a continuous balancing between the value of this openness for the public and the importance of keeping plans and information private for security reasons.

The Military Intelligence and Security Service faces similar issues. It has to guard the safety of other people, but also has to worry about people’ s privacy. Due to digitalization, the MIVD can monitor and store more and more communication and information. The Service has to be on guard not to go to extremes and risk people losing their privacy for no valid reason. Military personnel can also contribute to their own safety and privacy by going further than just following the rules regarding communication. It helps if they give some extra thought to what they do or do not post online and make sure their privacy settings on social media are set so that their posts are only shared with people they actually know and trust. The vulnerability of their privacy in digital media has been shown several times and they have to change their privacy practices accordingly.

It might also help if soldiers were to discuss this with their relatives. Soldiers get a lot of thorough training to prepare for anything they might encounter while serving in the military, but their families lack this kind of training and have to make many decisions by themselves. Not mentioning certain information may seem self-evident to a trained soldier, but a family member might be unaware of the potential consequences that the sharing of certain information might have. Particularly partners of younger soldiers are nowadays used to keeping contact with their peers through blogs, chats and social media. As part of a military family however, they have to be more careful with their personal information online. Digitalization requires them to keep more things private because sharing something online means it cannot be considered private anymore. The expression ‘loose lips sink ships’ is thus still accurate, but proper instructions on what information to keep secret can easily help avoid the risk of confidential information going public.

The final conclusion of this paper is that digitalization has increased the importance of the privacy practices of those working for the military and their relatives. The openness of digital media has many positive aspects to it, but it has also made it a lot harder to keep information private. In a military context, privacy is closely related to safety and security so, in the age of digitalization, it is vital for those working in the military to be aware of the importance of privacy practices. As discussed above, digitalization has indeed influenced the privacy practices of soldiers and their families in a variety of ways. Due to digitalization, they have to take an active stand to ensure their personal information remains private and actively practice operational security, while still enjoying the advantages digitalization has to offer.



Brand, M. (2011). Strijd om de beeldvorming bij militaire operaties. Militaire Spectator, 180(4), 163-174.

CGI. (2011). Social media veranderen defensie.

De Telegraaf. (2015, October 15). Mogelijk zaken omstreden screening intrekken. De  Telegraaf.

DenK. (2015). Waarom zeggen jullie het niet altijd zo?

Department of Defense. (n.d.). Social Media Guide For Military Families.

Department of Defense. (2002). Directive Type Memorandum 09-026.

Fried, C. (1970). An Anatomy of Values. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gavison, R. (1980). Privacy and the Limits of Law. The Yale Law Journal, 89(3), 421-471. doi: 10.2307/795891

Gibbs, S. (2015, March 31). Facebook ‘tracks all visitors, breaching EU law’. The Guardian.

Groenendijk, P. (2015, January 1). Relatie met Turkse vriend kost miliair haar baan. Algemeen Dagblad.

Klopper, R. (2014, October 2014). Sociale media- alarm voor militairen. De Telegraaf.

Melber, A. (2008). US soldiers blocked from blogging. The Nation.

Miller, V. (2011). Understanding Digital Culture. United Kingdom, London: Sage.

Mills, J. (2008). Privacy: The Lost Right. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ministerie van Defensie. (n.d.). Werken bij Defensie op Social Media.

Nieuwenhuis, K.H.M. (2013). Vrijheid van meningsuiting van ambtenaren beperkt #socialmedia (Master’s thesis, University of Twente, the Netherlands).

NOS. (2015, January 12). Militairen met ‘risicopartner’ vechten schorsing aan.

NOS. (2015, September 3). Nederlandse militair overgelopen naar IS.

NOS. (2015, November, 19). Nieuwe wet veiligheidsdiensten: hard nodig of gevaarlijk?

Tate, R. (2010). Facebook CEO Admits To Calling Users ‘Dumb Fucks’.

TNO. (n.d.). Overzichtskaart sociale media – militair optreden.

Van der Veen, C. (2015, August 11). Defensie onderzoekt datingfraude met foto’s Marco Kroon. NRC.