Survey: Unauthorized teleworkers a security risk

Federal teleworkers are less of a security risk than many of their in-office colleagues who take home government work without authorization, according to a report released Monday by the public-private partnership Telework Exchange.

An online poll of 258 federal employees including sanctioned teleworkers, non-teleworkers and non-teleworkers who unofficially work at home revealed that federal data is significantly more mobile and still vulnerable. Telework Exchange conducted the survey in May to examine changes in data mobility and security awareness one year after the loss of a Veterans Affairs Department laptop that contained personal data on 26.5 million veterans and active-duty members.

The report found that 63 percent of respondents who worked from home unauthorized -- more half of the non-teleworkers surveyed -- used their home computers in doing that work. "People were saving documents on their home computers that were unprotected," said Josh Wolfe of Utimaco, a data security company that underwrote the study.

After the VA incident, 13 percent of federal employees surveyed said their newly issued laptops did not have encryption. And while 65 percent of employees said their agencies reinforced security policies after the event, only 48 percent said their agencies provided additional training.

When teleworkers and nonteleworkers where asked if they had antivirus protection on their laptop or desktop computers, 94 percent of teleworkers responded yes, while only 75 percent of non-teleworkers said yes.

The survey, which had a 6 percent error margin, did not break down results by agency or job function.

"We're not sure if these people are dealing with spreadsheets with Social Security numbers on them or something more mundane than that," Wolfe said.

Still, he said, agencies should be reemphasizing security procedures for all authorized teleworkers and making sure all mobile equipment -- not just laptops -- is secure.

The report recommends that agencies audit the online behavior of unofficial teleworkers who work at home and give them the same home computer security training and equipment as official teleworkers.

Diane Merriett, a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, which helps agencies maintain security controls to enable telework, said the behavior of unauthorized teleworkers "is outside the realm of GSA comment."

She directed Technology Daily to the GSA's March bulletin on telework IT guidelines. The bulletin states that agencies should encrypt all data on mobile computers and devices that carry agency data, "unless the agency determines that the data are nonsensitive."

Each agency is supposed to establish its own policies for "limited personal use" of government e-mail and Internet systems based on 1999 recommendations by the CIO Council, according to the bulletin. That guidance advises agencies to review user activity logs for inappropriate activities.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the study's finding that agencies failed to encrypt data on some new laptops is "disappointing."

A large number of her members "routinely travel in the course of their daily work. These include Internal Revenue Service revenue agents and revenue officers, bank examiners of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and many others," she said, adding, "This is an important shortcoming that must be addressed by agencies, even as they seek to expand telework opportunities."

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