How Facebook users can report casualties in Afghanistan before the military

May 24, 2010

Recently Facebook changed its privacy settings which meant that a lot of people’s profile information is now far more public than they might realise. Facebook users who joined with the expectation that their information was only going to be shared with a select group of online ‘friends’ are finding that all sorts of other people have access to it as well. 

Various people (including U.S. senators) and organisations (like the European Commission) have already pointed out that this has serious implications.

Here is another.

On Monday 17 May, a twenty year old US soldier was killed in Afghanistan. Billy Anderson had been serving with 82nd Airborne in Baghdis province when his unit hit some improvised explosive devices. He died of the wounds he received in the incident leaving behind his wife and nine month old daughter.

On Wednesday, I thought I’d have a play with Kurrently, a new search engine for Twitter and Facebook. Naturally, I stuck in ‘Afghanistan’ to see what would come up. I was less interested in the Twitter results because we already have Twitter search and was more ‘impressed’ with the range of material that it was digging up from Facebook profiles.

Various status updates discussed members of family who were deploying soon. There was one update apparently posted by a soldier at a U.S. base in Afghanistan. And it also became clear that a number of people were posting updates about Billy Anderson offering their condolences and support to the family.

A quick Web search and some scouring of the Department of Defense website revealed that Billy Anderson’s death had not yet been released and it wasn’t until Friday 21 May that an official statement was published.

The U.S. Department of Defense takes care to inform family members of the death of their relatives before any official announcement. Sometimes there are delays because family members are on holiday or otherwise unavailable. The aim is to ensure they do not first find out about the death of a loved one in a media report.

In this case a local radio station, WJLE radio, had reported the death on their website (on a page that is no longer available) by Thursday. It is possible that by that stage most family members knew what had happened but they might not have done.

It seems to me that Facebook’s fluctuating privacy policy combined with the power of a search engine like Kurrently has some profound consequences.

In an instant information age militaries need to work as quickly as possible to provide reliable information and might even have to ask families and friends of military casualties not to post updates on Facebook until everyone who needs to be has been informed.

Journalists are going to have to think about how they use information they access and whether it is ethically responsible to re-distribute what they find.

I, for example, could have flagged this up before the official statement but for obvious reasons – at least to me – decided not to. But that call might be more difficult in other circumstances when it could be argued that a piece of information is already in the public domain.

Perhaps most evidently it appears that Facebook is in serious danger of making its users learn how the website’s privacy settings work in some very hard ways.

P.S. And on a related note, The Toronto Star is reporting that earlier today the Helmand blog, run by UK Forces Media Operations, had to pull a blog post which allegedly revealed incorrect information about ISAF casualties at Kandahar airfield.