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Portal allows Airmen to chat with friends, family

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 20, 2004) -- Airmen at home station or a deployed location can now send instant messages to their friends or loved ones whenever they have access to the Internet.

The Air Force recently implemented the "Friends and Family Instant Messenger" program, available through the Air Force Portal. Now, besides using the system to connect with other Airmen on work-related projects, users can chat online with non-Air Force friends or family members, said Lt. Col. Joe Besselman, the program director for global combat support systems at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.

"There was a dual purpose for (the instant messenger)," Colonel Besselman said. "Instant messaging has been a commercialization and socialization phenomenon in the commercial sector. Air Force leaders wanted to give that to Airmen, and to have that available in their work unit so they could chat with one another socially and also accomplish the mission. They also wanted to give deployed (Airmen) the capability to talk with their families back home."

Air Force Special Operations Command was chosen to debut this capability for the Air Force following a two-month test period. Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, AFSOC commander, notified the command’s Airmen in his holiday video, available through the Air Force Portal.

“I’m proud to introduce a new Air Force Portal real-time chat tool to help those deployed reach back and talk to their loved ones anytime, anyplace,” General Wooley said. “We honor your sacrifice, and this is just one thing that we can do to support you.”

Feedback from the testing period has been enthusiastically positive. The mother of one deployed staff sergeant said the service “has made a big difference in my life. Having the peace of mind of knowing that your loved one is safe on a day-to-day basis is priceless.”

Colonel Besselman said supply Airmen use the instant messaging of the portal to help move mission critical parts in and out of war theaters. Some National Guard Airmen are also using the chat to conduct recalls.

The Air Force has offered instant messaging through the portal for more than two years though the chat was limited to Airmen and civilian employees only.

Under the new program, Airmen "sponsor" friends or family onto the portal by entering their e-mail addresses into the system. The portal then generates e-mails inviting them to log on and get their own specially configured account. Airmen can have up to five people added to the system, Colonel Besselman said.

"Five people is an adjustable number," he said. "Based on the feedback ... and the scaling requirements of the infrastructure, we could change that number."

One challenge faced by the Air Force information technology community when trying to open up the portal to non-Airmen was ensuring the network would remain safe from the viruses and malicious code so prevalent on the commercial side of the Internet.

Initially, Air Force officials allowed the system to interface with commercial chat packages. But commercial messaging software often allows users to send images and attachments to other chatters. Those attachments could be infected with viruses or other malicious logic. The Air Force system is for text-only chats.

"It doesn't allow you to embed images or sounds or documents, where somebody could have put malicious code," Colonel Besselman said.

The Air Force uses a commercially designed real-time chat program to power the program. The software, while tailored to the Air Force's specific needs, is also in use by the Army, the Navy, and the Department of Homeland Security. The software does not need to be downloaded to users’ computers; it is entirely Web-based, Colonel Besselman said.

"If you are using a modern browser, that's all you need to use the chat," he said.

Another concern for Air Force leaders about opening the portal to friends and family had been that individuals sponsored could chat with people they did not know.

"We didn't want people to use the (system) because they've got nothing else to do, or to be trolling around looking for lonely hearts to talk to," Colonel Besselman said. "We wanted to provide the ability for friends and family members to talk with specific people on the network."

Friends or family members will not have the same access to the portal that Airmen have, but they will get limited access to the messenger.

"The (program) allows family members or friends a way to get an Air Force Portal account, but all they see is (the instant messenger)," Colonel Besselman said. "This doesn't give them all the power of the portal, but just a scaled back version.”

Within the system, it only allows visitors to see if their Air Force sponsors are logged on, he said.

Other concerns about the system have also been addressed. Recently, ranks were added to "screen names" to ensure Airmen knew who they were talking to when online.

"We added rank in there so people know your name and rank and where you are," Colonel Besselman said. "It helps make sure people are operating within the guidelines of the Air Force when they talk to somebody."

Chat on the portal is also encrypted, to prevent those outside the network from tapping into a conversation.

"A husband and wife can feel comfortable having a one-on-one conversation, because it is secured and encrypted," Colonel Besselman said.

To use the online chat, Airmen first need to get an Air Force Portal account. To sign up, visit https://www.my.af.mil.