Prior to his death in 2015, renowned British author and neurologist Oliver Sacks penned an essay lamenting society’s limitless plunge into the personality-depriving depths of smart phone and social media hysteria.
“Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases,” he wrote in the essay published posthumously in The New Yorker. “There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand.”
Sacks’ smart phone-induced melancholia, however, had yet to extend to the arena of national security.
But here we are.
Like the general population, today’s troops entranced by the glowing hypnosis of iPhone and Android screens grow increasingly unaware of the security breach potential at their fingertips. Lurking enemies capable of crippling cybersecurity attacks seek to prey on the complacent, and junior personnel have shown little in the way of resistance — opting instead to prioritize online popularity at the expense of information sharing and operational security.
A concerned Gen. Robert Neller, the now-retired former Marine Commandant, addressed this trend at a 2016 Center for Strategic and International Studies conference discussion in which he urged Marines to put down their inanimate soulmates and turn their focus to the mission.
“We’re going to go to the field for 30 days; everybody leave your phone in the car and tell your significant other or your mom, your aunt, your uncle, that you’re not going to get 75 texts each day and answer them,” he said.
“You’re living out of your pack, you’re going to stop at night, you’re going to dig a hole, you’re going to camouflage, you’re going to turn off all your stuff, and you’re going to sit there. And you’ve got to be careful to not make any noise, and you’re going to try to have absolutely no signature. Because if you can be seen, you will be attacked."
Being “seen,” to Neller’s point, now extends well beyond the smoke lamp light discipline of yore, a notion proved during a recent combined arms exercise held at the abominable Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms.
With NATO forces pitted against Marines and sailors in an expansive array of battle scenarios — cybersecurity attacks included — one junior Marine’s insistence that every moment of his existence be documented for all to see proved to be his unit’s undoing.
“He took a selfie of him being bored," Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds told Pentagon reporters in a story first reported by Military.com. "It showed in that selfie it was an artillery unit. You could go geo-locate him, and you could see what unit it was.”
And once his unit’s position was known?
“They were like, ‘OK, you guys are dead.’”
In a real war scenario, the lance corporal’s gaffe could back up human lives, not data, into a much more ominous type of cloud. It’s no far reach, then, to consider would have happened in combat against a near-peer nation capable of dismantling cybersecurity — a nation, say, like Iran. How many likes and followers is being the recipient of precision indirect fire worth?
The absence of human willpower to exist a mere two minutes without the comfort of a smartphone is partly what prompted the 82nd Airborne Division to ban all personal electronics prior to its deployment to the middle east. The storied unit deployed in response to surging tension that climaxed last week with the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Quds commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“Anything considered a personal electronic device. All those things,” Lt. Col. Mike Burns, division spokesman, told Army Times. “The decision was made so soldiers weren’t put at risk.”
In similar fashion, both the Army and Navy recently prohibited the popular Chinese-based video-sharing app TikTok from use on all government-issued phones. Like the 82nd, both services pointed to significant cybersecurity risks as cause for the ban.
Selfies and TikTok videos, meanwhile, remain far from isolated examples of software yielding geo-locating data.
Last year, it was revealed that the tracking app Strava sourced GPS data from individual phones and watches to produce global heat maps of high traffic areas that could be traced by virtually anyone using Google; areas of a base, for example, that may have more foot traffic than not.
The app, which is linked to Facebook or Google accounts, contains advanced privacy measures that enable users to hide select locations, but these can only be accessed on a desktop computer — most users never bother.
In Canada, meanwhile, a recent report detailed a series of complications that arose on military installations in the wake of the 2016 launch of the wildly popular augmented reality mobile game, “Pokémon GO.”
Blissfully ignorant gamers sauntered through bases in zombie-like fashion in search of the imaginary beasts, feebly obeying the all-powerful game’s GPS instructions to trespass despite warnings to the contrary that were based in reality.
Through each example, the common denominator remains the incessant need for minute-by-minute interconnectivity triumphing over not only an appreciation of what is in front of one’s own face, as Sacks decried, but the most elementary exhibitions of common sense as well.
“Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently,” Sacks wrote. “They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”
Narcissus once gazed upon a beloved face in a story that seems all too relatable in today’s world.
No matter the warning signs, lectures on personal electronics use within the confines of operational security will continue to fall on deaf ears unless drastic measures like those undertaken by the 82nd are instituted.
Otherwise, the targets on our backs will become ever-clearer. And we will float, complacent, through a personality-free existence oversaturated with TikTok videos of service members snapping fingers to undergo miraculous transformations from civilian hipster into camouflaged, English Premier League-style high-and-tight embodiments of rotten ball gags.
Insert undeniably original, pull-string doll “OK, Boomer” responses here.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.