SBA drafts policy on authorizing access to employee e-mail

Small Business Administration officials are drafting an agencywide policy to determine the authorization necessary to review an SBA employee’s e-mail messages, officials said Oct. 25.

“The chief information officer is working closely with the Office of General Counsel and the Office of Inspector General on an agencywide policy to cover the criteria in determining authorized e-mail reviews by agency officials and the appropriate authorization levels needed before an administrative e-mail review is conducted,” said Christine Liu, SBA’s CIO and chief privacy officer, in a statement. The policy is being drafted and circulated for clearance. SBA said it expects it to be approved early next month.

In more immediate action, Liu and Joel Szabat, SBA’s chief of staff, took a directive to senior managers Oct. 17 to halt e-mail retrievals without prior approval from Liu’s office, she said in a statement.

In an Oct. 10 letter Liu sent to the IG, she said her office would work to add clearer definitions of the roles SBA privacy and information security offices have in dealing with authorizing access to e-mail messages.

In August, SBA’s assistant IG for auditing, Debra Ritt, told Liu that a manager in the Office of Disaster Assistance retrieved e-mail messages from an employee who was a confidential source for the IG and a congressional committee.

The manager accessed the messages after a congressional hearing in which the employee, who requested anonymity, submitted a statement for the record, according to Ritt’s letter.

Managers at an SBA processing and disbursement center looked at that employee’s and others’ e-mail messages without the CIO’s authorization, according to a letter from Herbert Mitchell, associate administrator for disaster assistance.

“Nevertheless, no violations were discovered since the agency had no policies and procedures in place,” he wrote.

“Management’s ability to intercept confidential employee/OIG e-mails raises troubling questions about whether agency employees can confidently and securely bring confidential complaints to the OIG’s attention,” Ritt wrote.

The IG found that SBA lacked written guidance for reviewing employee e-mail messages. SBA’s standard operating procedure states that e-mail messages are subject to examination with authorized official agency reviews. But there is no clear definition of what officials consider authorized access, Ritt wrote.

“In [the] absence of controls…SBA has no assurance that appropriate safeguards are consistency employed,” she wrote.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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