ISRAEL: Loose lips on Facebook, security service warns


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Facebook-israel Two Israelis meet in New York. Or Nepal. Or Mars. So, you’re from Israel? Wha’dja do in the army?

Within minutes, they work out the connections with enough information for a detailed flow chart of all common landmarks, army buds and acquaintances.


These days, they don’t even have to meet. Social networks help keep tabs on old friends. Also to befriend – or “befoe” new ones.

This week, Israel’s General Security Service took the unusual step of issuing a warning urging Israelis to be alert to terrorist activity on the Internet. Specifically, people were warned against unsolicited approaches on social networks by strangers offering meetings abroad or easy money and seeking information. Seemingly innocent contacts might be terrorist efforts to recruit or kidnap. (Presumably this works both ways: A few months ago a Syrian paper had warned of Mossad and CIA recruiting efforts on Facebook as well.)

Recently, an Israeli citizen was approached by a person claiming to be a Lebanese merchant offering money in return for classified information; he reported the incident and broke off contact. Perhaps this prompted the warning. But the problem is older and deeper.

There’s a world of information out there. A total of 486,522 billion gigabytes of digital information were generated in 2008 alone, and the digital universe is expected to double every 18 months. That’s an awful lot of needles in a really big haystack. But researchers say any two Web pages are only 19 links away from each other; any two unrelated individuals in the U.S. are only six links apart.

Facebook saves people the linking.

Of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis on Facebook, some are in active military service. Others -- reservists and ordinary civilians -- have been in the army too. Together they share valuable information, and sometimes they inadvertently share it with others.

Last year, the army began the crackdown on the upload. The air force instructed pilots to remove their pictures from their Facebook profiles. A soldier from an intelligence unit was sent to the slammer for uploading photographs of his base to his profile. Pilots are not identified by full name or picture in Israel, and photographing around any military base is forbidden.


Often flocking together by army unit feather, Israelis use codes and assorted potential intel and offer unintended but excellent profiling services to any snoop. It doesn’t take long to form a cohesive picture of entire military units, complete with soldiers’ personal information, after-hours activities and their every movement.

Some were amused at the security service’s warning, communicated by the prime minister’s office. One reader asked whether terrorists would send him an anthrax application.

Others take the matter seriously.

Eran Tartakovski is a 28-year-old engineering student. A year and a half ago, while backpacking in the Far East like many young Israelis, he chose Facebook to update the folks back home and save him multiple e-mails. While wandering on the social network, he found himself looking at a pretty girl, a smiling soldier. But it’s what was behind her that really got his attention: a detailed army ops map complete with sensitive information that could endanger many people. So blown away that he wasn’t enjoying his trip, he decided to do something about it.

Tartakovski opened his own Facebook group to form a neighborhood watch called “Protecting our IDF.” It serves as a war room of sorts, a headquarters. Anyone identifying compromising information in the open is invited to contact the group; members approach the individual and point out the problem. Most people cooperate and remove carelessly revealed sensitive information. Those who don’t are reported. In one case, Tartakovski wrote an uncooperative soldier with everything he knew about him. It was a lot. Stupefied that a perfect stranger could learn so much about him from his profile, the soldier got the picture.

A year and a half later, the group is as active as ever, with nearly 3000 members. Its founder believes peers are more effective than commanders, educators or any external element of systems where hierarchy often breeds antagonism.

The Internet may have revolutionized espionage. Identifying targets, poring over pictures, surveillance and making contact took months, even years. Today, information and agents can be one click away and Facebook the perfect one-stop shop. No need to infiltrate foreign countries, cross enemy lines. No disguises or Groucho Marx noses. Some things still need to be done the old-fashioned way, as recent developments in Lebanon show. But for others, all it takes is a picture of a pretty girl and you’re in.


-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem