BYOD catches CIOs off guard

Surveys suggest that federal employees are using personal devices at work, yet most agencies lack policies and tools for managing the risks involved.

 A prize goes to any CIO whose strategic planning document two years ago had "develop security policy for employee-owned mobile devices" as a top priority in 2012.

The truth is that mobile’s sudden rise has caught many CIOs off guard, and most agencies lack provisions to manage and secure personal devices’ access to government networks and information. But such safeguards in the form of codified bring-your-own device policies are needed — and soon.

Nearly 60 percent of federal agencies lack appropriate tools for handling non-agency-issued mobile devices on their networks, according to a survey by Network World and SolarWinds, as reported by Camille Tuutti on FCW.com.

That might not be so troubling if employees weren’t using their smart phones for work, but multiple surveys indicate that they are. For example, nine out of 10 companies said their employees are already using personal devices for work, according to a survey by the IT services firm Avanade.

If the use of personal devices is as rampant in government as general surveys suggest, it can’t be good news that many of those people are apparently so careless about security, wrote Kevin McCaney in Government Computer News, citing a study by ESET and Harris Interactive. 

Of the four out of five people in that survey who say they use their personal devices for work, more than half fail to take the most basic steps to secure their devices and data. Less than one-third of smart phone users turn on the device’s auto-lock and password-protection feature, and only about one-third encrypt data on their personal devices. Security could be improved immediately by requiring those basic measures as part of a BYOD policy, the study states.

But one reader who commented on the GCN story said the issue is more complicated than it appears and that IT departments will struggle to enforce standards on personal devices. "Do I have the right to physically restrain an employee and take his/her personal [handheld device] to ensure it is password-protected because it was used to access [Outlook Web Access] to get company mail?" the reader asked.

Physical intervention wouldn’t be necessary if employees were required to sign a BYOD agreement that gives the employer the right to install software that can remotely wipe all the data from a device if it is lost or stolen. That approach is taking off in the private sector at companies such as Kimberly-Clark, among others, reported Sarah Fister Gale in Workforce Management.

The General Services Administration has had a similar policy in place as part of its BYOD pilot program, which began last year. However, Veterans Affairs Department officials decided that a BYOD policy was not currently feasible due to uncertainties about responsibility for repairs and investigations and other contingencies.

What is clear is that agencies need to do their homework when developing BYOD policies. Casey Sipe, a management-side labor and employment attorney in Pennsylvania, wrote in his blog, "The Employer's Lawyer," that "from a legal standpoint, ownership of the smart phone or tablet is irrelevant in case of a lawsuit." Current discovery rules require litigation parties to preserve all relevant electronic data, including information stored on employee devices.

If an employer determines that the benefits of allowing BYOD are worth the risks and added responsibilities, the supporting policy must be clear and easily understood by employees, Sipe wrote. That includes requirements for data encryption and possible restrictions on some activities, such as accessing certain kinds of content or conducting business on personal messaging or e-mail accounts.

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