Kundra's subsidy for mobile devices gets chilly reception

FCW readers see trouble ahead

Maybe Vivek Kundra's idea to provide $2,000 subsidies to federal employees to buy mobile technology to use on the job isn't so good after all. The readers who responded to our stories had few positive things to say about it.

Kundra, the federal CIO, made the suggestion at an event sponsored by AFCEA International's Bethesda, Md., chapter in late February. He said it is annoying to have to carry a personal smart phone and an agency-issued one. In addition, he said federal employees can typically buy devices faster and stay up-to-date more easily on their own than if they wait for their agencies to provide the technology.

We had questions of our own. Has Kundra not heard of the Federal Information Security Management Act, which has a lot to say about what employees can and cannot do with government data? Our readers echoed those concerns, pointing out several holes in the plan.

One wrote that Kundra, who was CIO of the District of Columbia before getting the nod at the White House, "is obviously not in IT and has no idea of the ramifications of users having mobiles on multiple different platforms: Support is a nightmare because no help desk can know how to do everything on every platform. Devices cannot be locked down by corporate policy to prevent unauthorized activity or provide remote wipe. Not to mention, do we really want a bunch of government employees accessing their government e-mail on god-knows-what unlocked, jailbroken or hideously insecure device? And we can't control what devices they use if we provide a subsidy. We can require a receipt for the original purchase to be reimbursed, but we can't prevent them swapping devices afterward like we can when we own and manage the device."

Another reader also brought up the difficulty of providing technical support. "Apps vary a lot from platform to platform, and as we have found out many times, Microsoft loves to change things so that other stuff no longer works the same (and to be fair, I have seen other companies doing that now — the new PDF reader broke some forms that worked in the previous version). A support nightmare. And what happens when your data plan runs out (for those who can use the [money] in the spirit it seems to have been proposed)? Do you get another infusion, do without or open up the personal wallet?"

One reader, who identified himself as Dennis, objected to the idea not because of security or privacy concerns but because of the assumption that employees should blend their work and private lives. "I am already required to extend credit to the government," he wrote. "Now they want a piece of my personal communications device, not to mention my personal time? Have you read the IT agreement? No, thank you. If I am required to carry portable IT equipment, let it be government-owned and issued."

Other readers took a more nuanced approach in their reactions, discounting the subsidy idea but finding value in other aspects of Kundra's thoughts.

"It's pretty clear that a subsidized personal mobile device is a non-starter, but there are parts of his statement that prove to be very beneficial, especially using the same device for desktop and mobile computing," one wrote. "But first, the separation and use of personal data and government data devices [is] pretty difficult to define. I would guess that the vast majority of government [employees] and contractors use some work time and equipment to conduct personal communications and business."

How much time a worker spends engaged in personal business varies from "outright abusive to very mild," the reader wrote. "But as long as the work is getting done, management is not going to hold anyone's feet to the fire, except for the occasional witch hunt.

However, one reader summed up the consensus in blunt terms: "Goes to show that even bright people can be out of their mind!"

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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Reader comments

Mon, Aug 29, 2011

Get over it, this will happen with or without a subsidy. Mobile and remote access for telework or just plan work is a reality and if the nay sayers or regulations try and stop it they will spend time and money fighting a tidal wave that will not be stopped.

Fri, Mar 4, 2011

It would be difficult to determine what content on the phone be government owned with privacy and security issues. Enforcement of records management requirements would be a struggle if an employee decides to use text messaging for communication instead of the government email account. If the government paid for your phone, they would be able to access your phone calls, text messages, etc. as outlined in all federal IT user agreements. How often would an employee be allowed to refresh the cell phone? It is highly unlikely that the federal government would be able to service all the various phones and applications. If the government limits the type of phone you can buy for service/support reasons, you would miss out on the government bulk discounts for devices compared to the single consumer. I hope that a cost benefit analysis was done to determine the best value.

Fri, Mar 4, 2011

Is Kundra's specialty IT - or Marketing? Maybe worse - an overzealous IT marketing guy with a lot of authority. He seems way too indifferent about putting our personal data at risk for the sake of the latest shiny new technology, and bent on making the government an early adopter of some potentially dangerous practices. Change can be very good - or very bad. A little restraint seems better suited here instead of sweeping 18-month mandates to make drastic changes in the way some reasonably important data is managed and protected.

Fri, Mar 4, 2011 Noah Nason DC

The commercial industry has been doing this for years. They simply limit the devices they will support to rain in support costs. This proposal may not be appropriate for organizations with higher security concerns. However, there are many solutions to providing adequate security for “sensitive but unclassified (PII)” data. Many of the methods involve “virtualization” and “sand-box” solutions which can be deployed to standard operating systems without regard to the device’s form. We are going to see the replacement of laptops with cell connected tablets for those employees who are running standard/common types of applications and who have low computational and storage needs.

Thu, Mar 3, 2011

This would be a nightmare to manage. What about contract service termination fees? The way cell phone companies are able to rob you blind with locked service agreements, would that mean if you were to quit the government, you would be stuck in a locked, expensive plan? Would each person be responsible for their own contract termination fee if they quit the government? What about employee transfers? Who would monitor all of this? Also, how did he come up with the figure of 2k? How would the IT support account for all the various types of phones, versions, etc.? How could you ensure that the employee was purchasing a phone with the subsidy instead of buying a phone, turning in receipts, and selling it on ebay? This idea has as many holes as swiss cheese.

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