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How bin Laden’s capture demonstrates social media risks

It started with a tweet from Keith Urbahn, chief of staff for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” Then it picked up steam: People responded, retweeted and then, just like that, Twitter was experiencing a huge flow of traffic. The site reported a record data spike of 5,106 tweets PER SECOND in the moments before President Obama addressed the nation with the official news.

We didn’t know it for sure at the time, but even before confirmation, the hive mind of social media had certainly reached a huge landmark in information technology. Contrast that with Sept. 11, 2001, when most of us heard about the attacks in New York and Washington the old-fashioned way: over the cubicle wall or via breaking news on the television. But what is really striking is this — way before Urbahn’s tweet that launched a thousand retweets, evidence of the military action was being revealed by Twitter user Sohaib Athar in Abbottabad, who commented on the explosions and helicopters in a series of status updates and then tweeted later “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”

While I doubt that Athar’s tweeting had much affect on the outcome of Sunday’s raid, it should serve as an important lesson when it comes to social media risks and matters of your own information security. What might seem like innocent observations to your staff might actually tip off your competitors to new projects or a vulnerability in your system. When it comes to the almighty dollar, if knowing exactly what your employees are blasting on their Facebook pages and blogs can have competitive advantage, a prudent capitalist would be foolish to ignore the feeds. Who needs corporate espionage if people are just giving it away for free?

Of course we can’t reasonably prevent our teams from participating in Facebook and Twitter in their personal time, but it’s prudent to make everyone aware that our immediate access to the periphery of daily life has turned the global village into a very nosy little neighborhood, and there are certain topics that need to be kept off the social networks.

Last month, our experts Nelson and Danielle Ruest wrote about social media risks and crafting a social media policy and had great advice for the midmarket CIO: “Assigning active personnel with the responsibility of updating and maintaining a presence on the social network and ensuring that this personnel is aware of information that is ’Facebook-ready‘ — or verboten for the masses — is the only way to make sure your organization will take advantage of the benefits of these networks without risking its own internal secrets. Be careful how you use them, but use them to your advantage.”

While Athar is making jokes about staying alive, no one wants to be the guy who fed insider information to the other team. Just another reason why a rock-solid social media policy protects both you and your team.

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