IRS workers violate e-mail policy

Report on IRS Employees’ Inappropriate E-mails

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A recent audit of Internal Revenue Service employees’ computers found inappropriate e-mail messages, including pornographic ones, on more than half of the PCs they audited. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which conducted the review, found that a large percentage of employees do not comply with the agency’s e-mail policies. By breaking the rules, employees leave IRS computer systems open to destructive viruses and data theft, the IG reported.

The IG reviewed a statistically random sample of 96 employees’ e-mail inboxes and found 71 with messages that violate the IRS’ personal e-mail use policy, according to the July 31 report. The audit revealed chain letters, jokes, offensive material and sexually explicit content.

The IG recommended holding employees accountable for violating the agency’s acceptable use policy on e-mail and advised the IRS to institute a program of monitoring e-mail message content. Such a program could lead to more employees being disciplined for abusing their e-mail privileges, the report states.

It also recommends that IRS officials hold systems administrators accountable for ensuring that only authorized e-mail servers are connected to the agency’s computer network.

W. Todd Grams, who was the IRS’ chief information officer when the IG released a draft report on the e-mail audit, told the IG that officials would review the IRS’ policy on e-mail monitoring and make a recommendation on content monitoring.

Grams also said his office would focus on the risks of misusing e-mail during employees’ annual security awareness training.

Although such a program would require additional resources, “considering the risks of subjecting the IRS network to malicious software, we believe this commitment is necessary,” the report states.

However, a university IT expert said content monitoring might be of little additional value to the IRS. “I’m struck by how much [the IG] found by looking at storage and question whether they would learn that much more at the margin from e-mail monitoring,” said Stephen Holden, assistant professor of information systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

He added that spam filters might help redirect inappropriate e-mail messages away from inboxes. Such filters, however, are not foolproof, he said.

Hackers often embed computer viruses in e-mail messages with attention-grabbing subject lines or pornography to entice recipients to open the messages, the report states. Opening them can lead to data loss or give hackers unauthorized access to computer systems.

In a memo dated Sept. 8, 2004, Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and information technology at the Office of Management and Budget, set a Dec. 1, 2004, deadline for agency officials to create or update policies prohibiting federal employees from misusing government computers.

The IRS has held presentations and encouraged employees to comply with its e-mail policies, but according to the IG report, agency officials have not effectively monitored employees’ e-mail to ensure compliance with those rules.

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