Murphy's Law: December 8, 2001

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The unintended consequences of email for sailors. During the late 1990s, the U.S. Navy experimented with using satellite data links (which ships had long been using) to provide email service for sailors. Noting that more (now most) sailors familys used email, it was thought that providing access to email for sailors on long (six months or more) deployments would be good for morale. That turned out to be an understatement. The sailors loved it and, more to the point, sailors began staying in the navy longer because of the email access. The system at sea was not fancy. Using the ships PCs, and eventually their own laptops (popular to play games on), sailors could send and receive (with some delays, depending on what the ships satellite datalink was needed for) as much email as they wanted. Since sailors at sea cannot call home (satellite cell phones are too expensive), its either email or snail (regular) mail. In the last year, every sailor has received an email address and most are using it. But then something unexpected happened. Sailors were not just emailing friends and family back home, but were getting in touch with sailors on other ships. Not for official business, the navy expected that and finds email very useful for running the fleet, but just to chat. A lot of the sailor-to-sailor email was about non-military things; music, sports, the best places to have a good time in foreign ports. But there was more, there was the usual navy scuttlebutt (rumors and gossip) about what was going on within their ships. One thing that many sailors discovered was that the spare parts and equipment shortage of the 1990s wasnt over yet (despite navy claims that things were getting better, Same with the sailor shortage, which was still sending a lot of ships to sea with smaller (and overworked) crews. The navy had morale, and retention (keeping sailors in the navy) problems with this back in the 1970s (after the Vietnam war) and in the 1990s (after the Cold War.) While the navy has made progress in the last few years in making enough spare parts and equipment to get most ships to sea with all systems functioning, emailing sailors now have a better idea of whats going on with many ships. The navy doesnt quite know what to do about this. This readiness information is not, strictly speaking, classified information. And trying to monitor and censor the flood of sailor emails to crack down on discussing readiness would be impractical and unpopular (an aircraft carrier has over 60,000 incoming and outgoing emails a day). All the navy can do now is electronically scan outgoing email for classified information (like the ships location or status.) But there's no scanning at all for sailors ashore and using a non-military email account. And the sailors are happy with the email connection, and not having to depend on the navy to let them know how things are in the rest of the fleet.

 


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