The Army’s version of Facebook

Thu, 06/20/2013 - 1:57pm
Stephanie Carmichael, Contributor

Facebook. We use it every day to stay connected with family and friends and, well, to snoop on people and thumb through their photos. Since we’re essentially chronicling our lives, few of us probably consider it a good way to stay safe in the digital age.

The U.S. Army might disagree. It’s borrowing the concept of a Facebook "timeline" — a log of status updates and pictures — and adapting it to intelligence-gathering overseas. Introducing the “combat Facebook timeline,” a record of locations, key events, and imagery that soldiers can put together using a handheld device to mark their platoon’s every step.

One model, called the Panther, is still a prototype for now. It’s like an Android smartphone that has more private uses — so soldiers won’t be using it to make long-distance calls or send messages back home. It’s strictly for tracking a patrol’s movements over time and cataloging more detailed information. Soldiers can snap photos of what they see and even add commentary. When they return to base, they plug the Panther into a computer and download this dynamic “map” of their travel progress.

This is just one of several prototypes the Army is developing and testing as part of its semi-annual Network Integration Exercise war games in Texas. The current version of Panther is a little buggy and unstable, but that’s a problem that can be overcome with time. Outfitting soldiers with a network is something the Army has wanted to do for more than a decade. It’s all part of a communications program called Nett Warrior — software that enables troops to record data about everything around them and transfer that intel back to headquarters — and the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T network. The road to refining these advancements has led to many technical and cost-related challenges. The technology has to be practical, and now the Army is getting closer to realizing that vision.

Usage is one concern, as the Army has to make sure bored soldiers don’t abuse these handheld devices for personal entertainment. They must properly encrypt the data, too, for security purposes and to avoid hacks from insurgents — like the drone-video breach that happened in 2009, where militant groups intercepted U.S. military feeds. A host of potential problems has and continues to hinder development.

So how is this going to make the battlefield safer? Why is it worth the trouble? The relay of information works two ways; those monitoring from afar can provide tactical feedback to squad leaders, giving them a major advantage.

The better prepared soldiers are to penetrate new territory, the easier their job will be. But this is our future, too, with technology like Google Glass that can take and post photos directly to Facebook or Twitter, for example. We’ve covered in gadgets, but we’re already connected to the people all around us. When overseas, soldiers are part of a different community; staying in contact can make the world seem just a little smaller.

As the war in Afghanistan comes to a close, the question remains how useful and relevant this technology will be when the network completes and matures — perhaps after the war is over and before another begins.



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