In a bungling that would make James Bond cringe, De Standaard reports that employees of the Belgian government’s State Security Service — the country’s equivalent to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — have been outing their identities and sensitive jobs on social media sites. The employees exposed themselves by doing what millions of other workers do everyday: listing their employer on Facebook and LinkedIn. Now, Belgian policymakers and the intelligence service are expressing concern about the incidents and their potential security implications. The exposure follows a growing trend of individuals in intelligence and defense positions revealing sensitive and potentially dangerous information online. The U.S. Air Force has even had to start reminding service members to not post their location on social media while in warzones.
It is likely that the actions of the Belgian intelligence workers were not even illegal. A quick search of LinkedIn finds hundreds of individuals listing U.S. intelligence agencies as their employers. These employees are likely not considered covert and thus they are largely free to mention their employer in public. That said, in an era of ubiquitous social media, where a simple Google search can dig up everything from our telephone number to our children’s school, broadcasting that you work for an intelligence service is certainly ill advised — both for personal and operational security reasons.
If anything, the self-outing by Belgian intelligence workers should be a wake up call to workers in America’s intelligence field about the dangers of putting details of their professional lives online. Many people share too much online already, but for intelligence workers the consequences can be more serious. Even seemingly innocent information can be used in combination with other data to not only learn about their private details but also, as in the case of journalist Mat Honan, steal their online identity. In the coming years the intelligence community will likely develop more robust guidelines for the social media presence of employees. However, for now it seems much of the responsibility for determining the appropriate personal security in social media behavior lays with intelligence workers themselves.
Mike Jones is a researcher, writer, and analyst on national and international security. He lives in the DC area.