Managing IM in the office

Making instant messaging available internally gives employees the productivity benefits of IM without the security risks

Frequently asked questions about instant messaging

Corey Booth provides secure instant messaging to employees at the Securities and Exchange Commission, where IM’s use splits along generational lines. Younger employees like IM and use it more often than older employees, who rely more on other means of communication, said Booth, SEC’s chief information officer.

As a strictly internal office productivity tool, IM is neither a big hit, nor is it a bust, Booth said. The new Microsoft Office Communicator IM service at SEC is simply one more PC tool that employees have to do their work.

Booth’s experience with IM is not unusual. Chief information officers or security officers often decide whether to offer or block IM services. They decide whether the productivity benefits outweigh the risk of picking up a harmful virus or malware or of losing productivity because employees spend too much time sending IMs instead of working.

Most federal agencies lack standards and policies for PC instant messaging and cell phone text messaging. However, that official silence has not yet become a problem because many government employees simply don’t use IM or text messaging. They find them unnecessary.

A recent poll of 122 federal employees conducted by Government Computer News found that most of the respondents — 90 percent — don’t use IM services at the office.

Agencies have different cultures, and technology-focused organizations such as the Defense Department are more likely than nontechnical agencies to use enterprise IM or text messaging and employ stronger security measures to control those services. Employees at less tech-savvy agencies may use IM for personal communications. They might download commercial IM software and use it to coordinate lunch plans with their co-workers or share office gossip.

Emergency messaging
Text messaging has a somewhat different history in government than IM. Many city governments have adopted Short Messaging Service to report traffic delays, weather information and emergencies. Grants from the Homeland Security Department made possible the development of first-responder IM and SMS systems, but creating a federal standard for text messaging has proven difficult.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that an absence of federal guidance and a lack of interoperability between states’ messaging systems were hampering the creation of a national first responder communications network.

The consequence has been a situation in which people operate without any guidance, or they make up rules as they go along. That changes when someone issues an executive-level directive or a high-profile incident occurs.

Transcripts of IM conversations were at the center of the Mark Foley affair and provided evidence that helped bring the scandal involving the former House member and underage pages into public view.

With the exception of Booth, several federal CIOs were unwilling to comment for this article. However, several rank-and-file employees and industry security experts shared their insights into in the risks and benefits of IM and text messaging.

Bianca Lee, an applications developer, said she used IM and text messaging as productivity enhancers when she was working under contract at Pensacola Naval Air Station. “I could share code and get questions answered without having to leave my desk or physically disturb anyone,” she said. 

IM offers benefits and poses risks in the federal workplace. On the one hand, it enables easy transmission of information that can speed collaboration among IM users. On the other, for every bit of harmless code passed between IM users, there could be a virus waiting to be opened. The recently discovered Pykse.A worm, for example, targets users of the Skype PC-to-PC calling service through its embedded IM program. The worm displays a link that seems to display a model, but clicking on the link downloads the virus to the user’s PC.

Ben Burnett is an enthusiastic proponent of using IM technology to enhance productivity. A software engineer at Architecture Technology Corp., Burnett and his co-workers use IM for planning activities because they can get their questions answered quickly.

“It is much faster than e-mail and the phone for quick queries between offices locations,” Burnett said. “It does get used a lot for non-business uses such as lunch plans,” he added, “but this encourages employee well being.”

However, most employees are unaware that information they share via IM can be stored and read by others. Security consultant Tim Skorick said agencies that have strong security policies for telephone and radio communications should create and enforce similar policies for instant and text messaging.

For situations involving sensitive information in which telephone and radio/wireless communications are banned, for instance, IM should also be prohibited, Skorick said.“More casual environments dealing with non-sensitive or public data wherein the speed of communication is critical would accommodate a more permissive attitude toward instant messaging services,” he said.

Meanwhile, the National Archives and Records Administration’s Records Management Division has determined that an IM conversation can be a federal record and has recommended that agencies develop policy standards to govern the use of IM.

Embedded chat
Employees may not always be aware that they have IM capabilities. Popular, free e-mail clients such as Google’s Gmail offer Web-based IM chat clients embedded in the e-mail program. Users can open chat windows and chat inside the e-mail application, negating the need to download additional software.

Employees can access Web-based versions of IM clients that allow them to chat from a browser window. Earlier this month, for example, Yahoo introduced a Web-based version of its Messenger service that can communicate with Microsoft’s Windows Messenger. The company touted the client as useful to employees at organizations that block users from downloading unauthorized IM software. 

Security experts say department and agency CIOs must respond quickly when new messaging technologies are introduced, conducting tests for security and usability to ensure that any new service does not distract from work or cause other unintended consequences.

Network management tools such as FaceTime’s RT Guardian can detect and block incoming IMs and other peer-to-peer connections, and it can enable IM communication while blocking specific features that may open users to security vulnerabilities.

Instant messaging “is a great communication tool if used wisely and sparingly,” said network security consultant Rori Black. “However, it’s [also] just one more shiny object to kill productivity.”

Bosworth is a technology writer who lives in the Washington metropolitan area.
Instant messaging isn’t an optionMany federal employees are barred from using instant messaging  (IM) and text messaging at work. Although some say they support the restrictions, others would like to be able to use those technologies. The following responses are from two federal employees in sensitive positions who agreed to comment on the issue.

  • An employee in the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division wrote: “Personally, I think that IM/texting is valuable in thework space, especially to agencies/groups/teams doing work at [different] offices and sites. It’s invaluable real-time communication. DHS doesn’t allow it. They block Gmail chat at my office, so I can’t do texting that way.”
  • An employee in the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau  wrote: “IM is strictly not allowed at the TTB. We handle the tax records of wineries, wholesalers/importers of alcohol, tobacco and such. We run background checks and have sensitive personnel information, and it is [bureau] policy to not let that be transmitted over a medium we don’t strictly control. I support this policy. I would not want information of that nature about myself going over an unsecured IM where I could not ensure its security or track a copy/paste.”
— Martin Bosworth

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