November 28, 2010: The U.S. Department of Defense has re-created the most useful Internet tools (Facebook, Wikipedia, blogs and Youtube) in a software system called milSuite (containing milBook, milWiki, milBlog and milTube) on its internal (closed to the outside world) Internets (NIPRNET and SIPRNET). MilSuite went live in October, 2009, and features were added gradually. MilTube just recently came online, and milSuite already has nearly 90,000 users.
Why all the secrecy? For the same reason some companies have their own closed communication systems, to keep out the trolls and the enemy (competitors). While milSuite is an unclassified system, troops are discussing professional matters, and can do so more freely without worrying about the mass media, or the Taliban, listening in. As the number of users increases, so will the features, mirroring what is out on the public Internet.
Military personnel, especially in the United States, were early users of the personal computers, and the Internet. But for exchanging professional information, the background noise on the Internet often got in the way. While the troops liked to share their experiences with the general public, this was often difficult. So for the last decade, the military has been developing ways to both get the word out to the general public about what they do, and still have private internal discussions about their work.
For example, two years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense created its own video sharing web site; TroopTube. This was done partly, though, to deal with another problem. On May 14th, 2007, the Pentagon began blocking access to YouTube, MySpace, Metacafe, IFilm, StupidVideos, and FileCabi, BlackPlanet, Hi5, Pandora, MTV, 1.fm, live365, and Photobucket. These were sites that provided video and audio clips to users. That meant that anyone using a computer connected to Department of Defense network (NIPRNET), was no longer able to reach the banned sites. The reason for the ban was quite practical. All those video and audio clips were jamming up the network, and making it difficult to get official business done. This is a problem university networks began to encounter in the 1990s, and solved by a combination of expanding capacity, and restricting how much students could use the network for downloading large files. The Department of Defense is in a slightly different situation, because many of its users overseas depend on satellites for their Internet connection. Land based fiber-optic lines can provide a lot more capacity, but in combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, satellite is all that's available.
TroopTube was also established because of the backlash that developed when the troops lost access to the videos and social networking sites. The troops use YouTube and MySpace to keep in touch with the folks back home, and each other. It's a big deal as far as morale goes. Troops still have access to the banned sites via non-military connections. But these are not as accessible, and often low capacity, in combat zones. Many troops take their laptops with them to the combat zone, and expect to use them.
In addition, the military uses YouTube as part of their public relations efforts, to show clips of good things the troops are doing. It appears that the decision to block access was taken without realizing some of the side effects. Something had to be done quickly. But there are often other consequences, like security problems, that could not be ignored either.
TroopTube encouraged the uploading of videos showing the troops in action. But the uploaded vids were screened to make sure OPSEC (Operational Security) was not violated, and the uploaders didn't give the enemy access to information that might endanger the troops. There are details of tactics and techniques that videos might show more clearly than even enemy troops involved would notice. Such videos could be used to train enemy fighters to counter the American tactics and weapons. The military censors will also block videos that might be embarrassing to the military (these usually show up on YouTube anyway.) But milTube allows the more useful (to the troops) vids to be posted, and discussed.