U.S. servicemembers and other Defense Department personnel can no longer use fitness trackers or certain other geolocation devices and applications in parts of the world deemed operational areas, including warzones, Pentagon officials announced Monday.
The prohibition of such tracking services, which range from smartphone and tablet applications to wearable fitness trackers, is designed to protect information about where American servicemembers are operating, said Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman. The policy stops short of banning all devices capable of geolocation, such as smart phones, if the service can be turned off.
The new policy was announced in a memorandum dated Aug. 3 and signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. The memo said the new policy was effective immediately.
“These geolocation capabilities can expose personal information, locations, routines, and numbers of DOD personnel, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission,” Shanahan wrote in the memo.
The change is the result of months of study of the use of geolocation features by troops after a GPS tracking company, Strava, published a global heat map in January that appeared to reveal locations and movements of American troops in combat zones.
Senior Pentagon officials determined the potential for such information to be published again in the future posed an operational security risk to servicemembers, Manning said.
“We don’t want to give the enemy any unfair advantage,” Manning told reporters Monday. “This is a necessary step to ensure the security of our personnel.”
It was not immediately clear what punishment individuals could face if they fail to adhere to the new policy. Manning said he did not know Monday what consequences personnel could face if they are caught using geolocation devices or applications.
In the coming months, commanders will study the use of geolocation services to determine if exceptions to the blanket ban of their use can be permitted, said Army Maj. Audricia Harris, a Pentagon spokeswoman. Operational areas include warzones such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as well as other areas across the globe where a named operation is occurring, such as Operation Atlantic Resolve in Eastern Europe, she said.
For other locations, such as stateside military installations, local commanders will decide if geolocation features can be used safely, according to Shanahan’s memo. In most areas of the Pentagon, for example, personnel can continue to use geolocation features, Manning said Monday.
The Defense Department additionally will develop a new training program to inform its personnel about the potential dangers of geolocation services that will be added to annual cybersecurity training, according to the memo. Senior Pentagon officials are to develop the new training within 30 days, the memo states.
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