As much as Facebook is engaged in its own skirmishes on US turf regarding privacy, the social networking platform is fighting an entirely different battle in Afghanistan. Facebook IM functionality and other military social networks allow analysts with the US Army, Air Force and Marines to hunt down insurgents, avoid civilian causalities and collateral damage and ultimately save American lives in Afghanistan.
Positioned in military chat rooms some 7,000 miles away from the actual battlefields, twenty-somethings who were weaned on computers, interactive video games and social networks are directing troops as to what targets to hit when.
According to Christopher Drew's report in the New York Times, these analysts are able to decipher data from predator drones and other spy planes via video feeds, enemy chat rooms and scanning still images. Three hundred alerts alone were sent in February, allowing the troops on the ground to stay ahead of the offensive in Marja.
Responsibilities on a daily basis include logging the information into chat rooms and communicating with drone crews and intelligence specialists in the field. The networking has been so productive that senior commanders are allowing the analysts leeway in determining how best to utilize the spy planes to expedite actions taken on the field.
As successful as the strategy has become, the Air Force is recruiting an additional 2,100 more troops to add to the 4,000 analysts already in place. Many of these soldiers will never make it to the war zone, but are considered just as vital as the soldiers that are actually serving in Afghanistan.
One touching human interest story that surfaced as a result of these campaigns tied both groups together. Quentin Arnold, 22, a California analyst said he was working so closely with the Afghanistan Marines that 15 to 20 had asked to be friends on Facebook. In turn, he collected $1,500 from his team on the West Coast and sent a care package overseas, complete with a PlayStation 3 game system and an XBox 360.
Similarly, the Air Force and government spy satellite experts have begun adapting the techniques of sports broadcasting to aid in the fight in Afghanistan. Learning from NFL game play during live broadcasts on TV, the military will now be able to adapt the methods that enable the NFL and other broadcasters to quickly find and show replays, display on-field first-down markers and jot John Madden-style notations on the screen.
According to an LA Times report, "The NFL has the technology so you can pull an instant replay of any Brett Favre touchdown over his career," said Carl Rhodes, a researcher with Rand Corp. "The idea is maybe the Air Force could use similar technology to look at what has happened at a particular corner in Afghanistan in the past week or past year."
Sports television broadcasters mark video with embedded text "tags" that later can be searched to find footage of a particular player or play. Such tags can help editors compile a highlight reel of the day's most exciting home runs, or a retrospective of the year's best dunks. The military is seeking to use the same technology to track possible insurgents in theaters thousands of miles away.
So social networking and TV industry techniques have essentially become offensive and defensive tools during wartime. I am sure its a revelation to many, that all those hours of watching football, playing video war games and Facebooking friends has essentially prepared the next generation with useful skills that many a parent over the years had dismissed as time-wasters.