Operations security, more commonly known as OPSEC, is an aspect of counter-intelligence that focuses on preventing adversaries from gaining access to information and actions that may compromise an operation. While operations security has been a vital aspect of military strategy since antiquity, a formal policy of OPSEC was not developed until the Vietnam War. During the war, analysts noted that certain missions were not achieving anticipated results, indicating that the enemy had foreknowledge of U.S. actions.
After careful analysis, they found that the enemy was able to anticipate U.S. actions by taking note of low security activities and information, such as filing a flight plan with civilian air traffic control. This kind of exploit, once identified, was easily addressed, and mission success greatly improved.
But what does OPSEC mean for you and your family? By being careful about how you and your family communicate and act, you can prevent vital information from reaching the hands of an adversary - whether it's an enemy of the United States or a cat burglar in your neighborhood.
Preventing problems at home
You may already be practicing operations security at home just by doing little things to keep your family and your home safe from intruders and unwanted attention. When a family member deploys, it's important to continue your usual routines and maintenance of your home to disguise the absence of your service member.
As much as you want to display your patriotism and support for your deployed loved one, tying yellow ribbons around the trees out front might not be the best idea. The sudden appearance of yellow ribbons or similar patriotic displays can signal that someone in the home is deployed, making your home vulnerable to intruders or scams.
Maintain the lawn and keep your service member's car in the driveway, or its usual spot, to give the appearance that someone else is home. Have your mail picked up by neighbors or held by the post office any time you are gone for more than a day or two. An overflowing mailbox is not only a sign that no one is home, but it can also be an easy way for someone to obtain personal information about you or your family members.
Dealing with strangers
When you were young, your parents probably taught you the danger of talking to strangers. At some point, strangers stop being so threatening, but it's important to continue to exercise a healthy level of caution. Maintaining operations security requires being aware of your surroundings and those around you to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
If you ever return home, even from a quick trip to the market, to find a door or window ajar, do not go in alone. It may be easy to convince yourself that you forgot to lock up, and while that may be true, it's better to err on the side of caution when your family's safety is at risk. Call the police if you notice anything suspicious and wait for their arrival before you try to venture into your house. Similarly, if you're home and you catch a glimpse of someone lurking around your property or staring into your window, keep calm and call the police as soon as you possibly can without drawing attention to yourself.
You know to be cautious when strangers come to your home, but there are 101 reasons why people ring your doorbell. On any given day you may open your door for a pizza delivery boy, appliance repairman, parcel delivery service, door to door salesman or the kid from next door whose ball landed in your backyard. Before you unlock the door, take a minute to think about if you're expecting anyone. Use your peephole or window to help identify the person at your door, and don't be afraid to ask the individual to identify him or herself before deciding whether or not to open the door.
With all the scams around these days, you should never give out personal information over the phone. As good OPSEC practice, always give the impression that you are not home alone and never reveal that your service member is deployed. Don't be afraid of seeming rude. Any stranger, over the phone or in person, who genuinely has good intentions, should understand your desire to protect your family.
Safety Away from Home
While away from home, it can be easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of getting from point A to point B. Unfortunately, criminals can use your distraction against you, so no matter how hectic things are, remember that you're never too busy to be conscious of what you say and where you are.
- Never discuss details of a deployment in public. This includes volunteering information through your cell phone while in a public place. Just because you aren't talking directly to someone else in the store or parking lot, it doesn't mean that no one is listening.
- Stay alert. Be extra careful when traveling alone, and try to avoid doing so as often as possible. Exercise caution when returning to your car. Always have your keys in hand to avoid lingering while you sift through your purse or pockets. Don't attempt to enter your vehicle if you ever notice someone lingering near your car or peering in the windows, and get in the habit of locking your car doors and taking a quick glance through the windows of your car before climbing in.
- Watch for suspicious activity. If you ever get the feeling that you're being followed while on foot, turn around and begin walking in the other direction. Try to walk back towards people or a well-lit area. If you're in your car and discover that you're being followed, never drive home. Instead, drive to a populated area or a police station.
The best thing that family members can do for deployed loved ones is keep the lines of communication open. Whether by phone, email, video chat or letters, letting your deployed loved ones know that they're still on your mind can build moral and help pass the time overseas.
Though your letters, emails and chats are meant to stay just between the two of you, it's important to remember that any communication might fall into the wrong hands. For this reason, following operations security is crucial to the safety of your deployed service member's unit and the success of their mission.
Whenever communicating with your loved one, never disclose the following:
- The mission of your service member's unit or the number of service members assigned to it
- Deployment times and locations
- Port call dates
- Special shore deployments
- Unit morale or personnel issues
- Troop movement
- Military intentions, capabilities or operations
- Your family's location during the deployment
- Your service member's scheduled return date
Your deployed loved one should also avoid these topics in return letters or emails. It can be frustrating to not receive any specific information about your service member's location or return dates, but it's for the safety of everyone involved.
Handling the media
The Internet makes it easier than ever to inform the world of your every move with just a tap of your finger. While it may seem obvious that you shouldn't publicly offer up information about your family member's unit, location or deployment and return dates, sometimes the line between public and private information becomes clouded on social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter or your personal blog.
Remember that anything you post or comment on is out there for the world to read. It's important for your safety and that of your deployed loved one that you avoid posting anything that advertises that your loved one is deployed or that you're alone. If you mention the deployment, refrain from using specific dates and identifying information no matter how insignificant it may seem.
In general, it is good practice to make sure that you have enabled security settings on your social media pages. Enabling security settings lets you control who sees your page, reads your posts and clicks through your pictures. Even if you've enabled security settings on your page, remember that not everyone has. Commenting on another person's pictures or posts with information about a deployment can also jeopardize operations security.
While a less common problem, it's worth mentioning that if you're approached by the press, all the topics that are off limits for social media should also be avoided, including:
- Exact locations or numbers of service members
- Deployment or return dates
- Planned troop movements
- Personal information (e.g., birthdates, addresses, phone numbers, etc.)
Media outlets keep everyone informed and keep you connected to your deployed loved one, but consider OPSEC before making a statement or posting an update or blog entry. Use media to its full advantage, but just be conscious of what you share with the world!
Remember, while the world is full of honest people, anyone can unknowingly compromise your personal security or the security of the military community through stray pieces of information. Do your part and practice good operations security.