April 30, 2015 / 12:42 PM / 2 years ago

Israeli military worries over troops' use of social media

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s armed forces see a growing threat in instant messaging applications -- both to battlefield secrecy and to the privacy of women soldiers.

According to official military journal Bamahane, the number of troop indictments for sex crimes has almost doubled since 2012, with “infringement of privacy” counts, some involving the collection and sharing of compromising photographs, making up 35 percent of cases.

The journal cited, as one example, a soldier who photo-shopped the face of a female comrade onto an image of another woman’s nude body and pressed her into having sex with him by threatening to disseminate the image.

In another case, a non-commissioned officer was accused of surreptitiously photographing women in the shower.

WhatsApp, the instant messaging application owned by Facebook, has become particularly popular among Israeli conscripts in recent years.

The military’s chief censor, Brigadier-General Sima Vaknin-Gil, said WhatsApp messaging about the Gaza war last July and August was the challenge to operational security that prompted the most discussion in meetings she held at the time with her staff.

“Do I think WhatsApp is liable to be an acute problem in the future? Yes, unequivocally,” Vaknin-Gil told Bamahane, predicting the power of social media would require a review of official secrecy standards in the country.

During the Gaza war, the military said it arrested several soldiers for publishing the names of casualties over the application before next-of-kin could be formally informed. The Israeli military regards such breaches as a security risk as well as a humanitarian issue.

The military has also disciplined troops for allegedly racist comments on Facebook, and in the case of a group of women soldiers, for posting photos of themselves in underwear and combat gear.

Vaknin-Gil said effectively monitoring social media activity in Israel for breaches of military law would be impossible.

“First of all, it’s not under my aegis,” she said. “Secondly, you would have to expand the body called censorship dozens of times over in order to handle all of the existing WhatsApps groups.”

The military’s response appears to be mainly cautionary, for now, by playing up social media cases that lead to the stockade.

“This is a very troublesome phenomenon, and soldiers don’t understand how grave it is,” the chief military prosecutor, Colonel Udi Ben-Eliezer, told Bamahane. “The telephone is easily available, and therefore the crime becomes very easy to do.”

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Roche

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