Earlier this week, Major General (Res.) Yitzhak Brick, the Israel Defense Forces’ ombudsman, published his report, completed last year, assessing the army’s preparedness for the next war. His conclusions were grim.
The IDF, Brick claimed, was understaffed, poorly budgeted, and badly trained. But perhaps the biggest challenge currently facing the army, he concluded, was smartphones.
“Every soldier who goes on operational duty with a smartphone immediately becomes traceable,” Brick said. “It’s our good fortune that, until now, our enemies have not used this fact to their advantage, but, in the future, they will. The army hasn’t learned any lessons. I walk around the front lines and see soldiers with smartphones in their pockets. It’s a huge problem, and we can solve it, but no one wants to do that.”
In his report, Brick singles out one application for criticism: WhatsApp, which allows large groups to exchange messages across platforms. In 2016, the IDF embarked on an official campaign to discourage soldiers and civilians alike from reporting alleged casualties on the application, after several families received erroneous news via the app informing them that their sons had been killed. The campaign, however, did little good: Last year, the IDF had to take the unusual step of denying a rumor, started on WhatsApp, that the chief of staff had died in a helicopter crash.
According to Brick’s report, WhatsApp is also being used by officers to share classified information, including soldiers’ personal and medical histories, against army regulations.
But that wasn’t the application’s gravest offense: WhatsApp, Brick said, was detrimental to the IDF as it quickly replaced the direct, in-person conversations that were the army’s staple and shaped so much of its culture. By communicating via the application, he said, “officers may create a needless distance, and maybe even alienation, between themselves and their soldiers. It’s obvious that this sort of behavior does damage to the camaraderie in the army, and goes against the army’s foundational spirit.”
Finally, Brick added, with officers and soldiers constantly communicating on their phones, they’re much more likely to exchange information that, just a decade ago, would’ve never been shared electronically. “Had you seen the classified communications the various security branches exchange internally,” Brick said, “you would fall off your feet.”