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Tech support's NSFW problem

Tam Harbert | Oct. 30, 2014
Help desk staffers can be caught in the middle when BYOD users get very personal with their devices.

Barry Thompson, network services manager at ENE Systems, a $37-million energy management and HVAC controls company in Canton, Mass., says he has seen problems increase because of what he calls "bring your own connection." People assume "that it's their personal phone so they can do as they like," he says. But they are using the office Wi-Fi network, which Thompson monitors. He can see every graphic that passes through the network. "If I notice pictures of naked people, I can click on it and find out who's looking at that," he says. When that happens, Thompson usually gives a warning on first offense. If it happens again, he brings in the employee's supervisor.

"It's like the Wild West out there if it's the employee's own device," says Dipto Chakravarty, executive vice president of engineering and products at ThreatTrack Security. Companies have a hard time enforcing their policies on BYOD devices, because it is, after all, the employee's device.

Often, the "old boy network" kicks in. The user "is petrified that IT will see all these bad sites that the user has visited," says Chakravarty. Employees admit they made a mistake and ask IT to please ignore the material. "IT doesn't really want to see the dirty laundry, so they say, 'Hey, no problem. I'll just wipe it clean and you're good to go,'" he says. "That's the norm."

The tendency to "cover for your buddies -- guys have been doing that for time immemorial," says Robert Weiss, senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health and a sex addiction expert. But there are social and ethical concerns for both the employee and for IT, says Weiss, co-author of the 2014 book, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Digital Technology on Parenting, Work and Relationships.

What happens, asks Weiss, when IT sees photos of naked children on someone's phone, which could be child porn, or repeatedly removes malware from porn sites from the same user's device, which could indicate an addiction? IT staffers are typically not well equipped to address criminal or addictive behaviors.

Weiss thinks there should be clear policies that indicate when IT needs to report such information to human resources, similar to policies about repeated drinking or signs of other addictions, and let HR take it from there. "The IT person should not be involved," he says. "I would not want to put the IT person in the position of having to talk about sex with an employee that they don't particularly know well."

At least one technical analyst, who has worked in IT support at a range of companies, thinks reporting such users to HR is taking it too far. Flagging child pornography is one thing, he says, but addiction? "I'm not going to HR about BYOD riddled with porn. It's their device. As much as I love helping people, their personal porn habits, even at an addiction level, are not my problem. Unless it's criminal, I don't care."

 

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