Burning Question

The military's porn problem: A national security threat?

Pentagon employees are caught surfing for X-rated material at work — and the porn may have contained malware that lets foreign spies phish for top-secret data

Officials at the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency sent a warning out to employees last week telling them to stop looking at porn while on the job. The one-page memo not only brands the behavior as wholly inappropriate, but also warns that visiting pornographic websites could "compromise the security of the network through the introduction of malware or malicious code." Well then, says Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo: "Let a thousand euphemisms bloom." Here, a concise guide to the military's porn problem:

First off: What does the Missile Defense Agency do?The agency is responsible for developing, managing, and improving the United States' missile defense programs. Essentially, if one of America's enemies fires a ballistic missile at the U.S. or its allies, the Missile Defense Agency is charged with intercepting the weapon. The agency largely does that with "hit-to-kill technology," which it likens to "hitting a bullet with a bullet." The Pentagon is seeking $7.7 billion for the division for fiscal year 2013.

And agency employees were looking at porn?Apparently, yes. "There have been instances of employees and contractors accessing websites, or transmitting messages, containing pornographic or sexually explicit images," Executive Director John James Jr. wrote in a memo obtained by Bloomberg News. "These actions are not only unprofessional, they reflect time taken away from designated duties" and "are in clear violation of federal and DoD regulations." Furthermore, he says, these sites "consume network resources and can compromise the security of the network through the introduction of malware or malicious code."

Does looking at porn really compromise security?It could. One unnamed government cybersecurity specialist tells Bloomberg that enemies can use pornographic websites to phish for confidential information. Indeed, "there are great dangers in interacting" with porn sites while on government computers, another cyberanalytics expert tells Bloomberg, as foreign programmers "can embed malicious computer code that infects computers, opens ports, steals data, or gains access to networks when photos, videos, or other files are downloaded." Apparently, says TPM's Marshall, "foreign intelligence services know what our spooks want to see."

Who was snooping for porn at work?Only "a few people," according to the memo. Thank goodness it was just a small handful of boneheads, says Will Oremus at Slate. We need these guys to focus on "figuring out how to intercept and neutralize any ballistic explosives that might otherwise kill large numbers of Americans."  

What will happen to the porn-surfers?They face disciplinary action, such as suspensions or having their security clearances revoked.

Sources: Bloomberg, Missile Defense Agency, Slate, Talking Points Memo, Washington Post

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