Virginia National Guard Eyes Web Sites, Blogs

Pam Newbern |ARNews | Oct 12 2006

Big Brother is not watching you “So They Say”, but 10 members of a Virginia National Guard unit might be.

The Manassas-based Virginia Data Processing Unit activated a team in July for one year to scan official and unofficial Army Web sites for operational security violations.

The team, which works under the direction of the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell, Army Office of Information Assurance and Compliance, notifies webmasters and blog writers when they find documents, pictures and other items that may compromise security.

The team uses several scanning tools to monitor sites for OPSEC violations. The tools search for such key words as “for official use only” or “top secret,” and records the number of times they are used on a site. Analysts review the results to determine which, if any, need further investigation.

For the 10 Virginia Guardsmen, the mission often becomes personal.

“I have friends over in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan,” said Sgt. Yaphet Benton, a network technician in civilian life. “Once I started this mission, I saw a lot of things that can endanger a lot of Soldiers. I see a lot of bios, pictures, names and birthdates. I consider that critical. Terrorists (and persons trying to steal your identity) can use that information.”

Based in Arlington, Va., AWRAC was created in 2002 to monitor official Web sites. Its mission was expanded in August 2005 by order of the Army Chief of Staff to include unofficial sites written by servicemembers.

Lt. Col. Stephen Warnock, team leader and battalion commander of the Manassas unit, said his team combines Guardsmen, Reservists and active-duty Soldiers. It’s a combination, he notes, that is rarely seen below the division or joint level.

“It’s a full Army force – it’s a more unique force,” he said. “We have quite a flavor to it.”

In addition to the Manassas unit, AWRAC works with members of the Guard and Reserve from Washington State, Texas and Maryland, as well as active-duty Soldiers and contractors.

“I see this expanding considerably with the communications tools that are out there now,” said Sgt. 1st Class Irwin Walters, who oversees personnel issues for the Manassas unit, and works in the IT procurement office for the IRS in his civilian life. “I have special concerns about Soldiers leaving their families vulnerable. They are giving up too much information that we know they (the terrorists) are capable of exploiting.

When a team member finds information that could be sensitive, he or she marks it for further investigation. Another team member reviews the item and determines if the webmaster or blog writer should be notified. Most notifications are made by e-mail, and the person responsible is given a few days to respond, depending on the severity of the issue.

When secret documents are found, the site owner is notified immediately by phone. Official sites are contacted through either the webmaster, or in some cases, the unit’s chain of command.

The most common OPSEC violations found on official sites are For Official Use Only (FOUO) documents and limited distribution documents, as well as home addresses, birthdates and home phone numbers.

Unofficial blogs often show pictures with sensitive information in the background, including classified documents, entrances to camps or weapons. One Soldier showed his ammo belt, on which the tracer pattern was easily identifiable.

Although AWRAC contacts Soldiers who write unofficial blogs, the team does not review sites that lack public access. Team members identify themselves as AWRAC representatives, and work with a legal counsel to ensure their actions adhere to law and Army regulations.

Members of the DPU bring a variety of specialized skills to the job. Some, like Walters, have extensive technological backgrounds. Others, such as Spec. Shane Newell, are newer to the field, but no less dedicated.

“It’s a good opportunity to get some real-world experience,” said Newell, a former member of the Old Guard. “I think it’s a good mission that needs to be done. It’s an ongoing mission.”

Benton agreed, saying he accepted the mission in an effort to gain greater technical experience. “It’s also a way to contribute to the war on terrorism,” he said.

For Sgt. 1st Class Lonny Paschal, the mission reminds him of his time in the Middle East.

“I was a contractor in Iraq, and I would see Soldiers coming back (with pictures of their compounds or weapons),” he said. “I would tell them – you can’t publish that. You’re compromising yourself and your fellow Soldiers. I do believe that we are saving lives in the long run here.”

For more on AWRAC or to request a courtesy scan of a blog, go to the team’s Web site on Army Knowledge Online at


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