More feds work on the go

Worker mobility raises new data security concerns

Government workers are increasingly mobile — and that means more federal data is on the move. From a security standpoint, that’s one more thing for managers of teleworkers to worry about.

A new Telework Exchange survey of 258 federal employees found that 41 percent used laptop computers for work while 59 percent had desktop PCs. Among the laptop users, nearly half, or 45 percent, had started using a laptop PC in the past year. The implications for data security are significant, researchers said.

“What we found most interesting is the fact that mobility really is on the rise,” said Josh Wolfe, director federal sales at Utimaco, a data security company that underwrote the study. “And with more federal employees getting mobile laptops every day, they’re still vulnerable [to security breaches].”

The study, conducted in May 2007, comes a year after a laptop PC containing sensitive data was stolen from the home of a Veterans Affairs Department employee. Telework Exchange researchers found the incident wasn’t quite the wakeup call that might have been expected.

In the survey, 13 percent of users didn’t have encryption on their newly issued laptop PCs, compared with 11 percent in June 2006 — before VA announced that the laptop taken from the employee’s home contained data on about 26.5 million veterans and active-duty military employees.

According to researchers, nonteleworkers — who represented 52 percent of the respondents in the study — are the Achilles’ heel of federal data security. More than half of the nonteleworkers participating in the survey said they carry files home to work at night or on weekends using their own PCs. In addition, 41 percent reported that they log onto their agency’s network from home.As a result, researchers dubbed them unofficial teleworkers.

“Unofficial teleworkers have an office, they’re expected to show up 9 to 5 everyday, and they have a full  [computer access] there,” Wolfe said. “They work very hard but in order to meet deadlines [they have to take work home].”

The survey revealed that although teleworkers and nonteleworkers have about the same awareness of their agencies’ security policies — 97 percent compared with 96 percent, respectively — teleworkers are more likely to have received training on data security, have encryption on their laptops and have antivirus protection on their work PCs.

Sixty-five percent of the workers in the study said their agencies reinforced security policies after the VA incident, though fewer than half reported that their agencies provided them with additional training (48 percent) or updated encryption and other protection technologies (47 percent).

Moreover, 16 percent said their agencies didn’t react at all to the incident.
Researchers have recommended that agencies audit and assess unofficial
teleworkers. Agency officials must “understand that [nonteleworkers] are going to work at home regardless of what you do, so you might as well train everyone and give them basic [security] tools,” Wolfe said.

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