Offices enforce acceptable use policies to keep up with tech

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Published: October 18,2004

More and more offices and businesses are finding it necessary to have acceptable use policies for computers and related technology. Employees are made aware of these policies and in some cases must sign an agreement stating that they have read and understand the policy.

Use of official computers is definitely a serious topic, says Buster Hale, associate vice chancellor for information technology at the University of Mississippi. “Employees in offices are getting fired for this sort of thing,” he said.

“It’s mostly for having pornography on their computers. People think the Internet is anonymous but that’s the furthest thing from the truth. They have a false sense of security.”

Hale, who teaches computer ethics and is the university’s chief information officer for central IT, is also an attorney with a law degree from Ole Miss and a masters of law in intellectual property from George Washington University. All computer science majors are required to take the computer ethics class and must write a research paper.

“I talk to them about pornography, child pornography, the First Amendment, downloading copyright information, privacy and everything that concerns the public and technology,” he said. “The law is the law but ethics is personal and not always black and white.”

He poses tough questions, asking, “Does your company want to be in the pornography business? Even though it’s legal, is it the image you want?”

He points out that while it’s not illegal to download adult pornography, it may be against a company’s policy. It is illegal to distribute any pornography involving a child under the age of 18. A case in point is a university professor who had 3,000 pictures of child pornography downloaded on his computer.

“His defense was that he expected privacy,” Hale explained. “He thought he had privacy but the court said he did not. In a public setting, the law is the policy that controls it.”

Hale thinks proper use of technology is a societal problem, noting that many people don’t understand that music downloading is illegal. “The law is always behind technology,” he said. “Copyright laws were written for books and have been adapted for the Internet.”

Many kids, he says, don’t think downloading music is stealing because it’s on the Internet and readily available.

At NASA Stennis Space Center there are a lot of employees and a lot of computers. Dina L. Cottrell, lead of IT operations, started working there as a co-op student 18 years ago when e-mail wasn’t even available.

“Now, e-mail is used for all informal communication. We are totally dependent on technology and had to put a usage policy into place in 2003,” she said.

For example, its information technology resources usage policy states that computers are for official use only. However, there can be limited personal use if it does not cost or embarrass the government, is not for private business or advertising, is not harassing or for pornography.

“For instance, an employee can book vacation tickets during their lunch hour,” Cottrell said. “Personal use of telephones is also limited and must be short.”

She stresses that anything employees do with office technology must not overburden the system and they can not expect privacy. “We have the tools in place to monitor all IT activities,” she added. “A statement pops up to that effect when the computers are booted up so they’ve been warned.”

At Stennis Space Center, where there were 1,575 NASA employees and NASA contractor employees as of August, Cottrell says IT stays on top of fast-paced technology and can knock out viruses before they reach the facility. Firewalls have been installed that employees can not take off. Additionally, action can be taken if Napster is installed on employees’ computers.

“We have powerful tools that will limit Internet sites employees can go to also,” she said. “We protect the government’s investment in technology and put a high regard on enforcing IT policies. Disciplinary procedures have happened.”

Mississippi Power Company and its parent Southern Company have had policies addressing acceptable use of electronic communications for several years, according to spokesman Kurt Brautigam.

“Much of the basis of the policies is common sense,” he said. “The use of company resources can’t be illegal, offensive or harassing, nor can electronic communications systems be used for conducting private business.”

He said minimal personal use, including e-mail and the Internet, is permitted, as long as it doesn’t interfere with an employee’s work duties or create cost for the company.

“We do have specific guidelines for acceptable use of the Internet and electronic mail, primarily to define appropriate and inappropriate behavior or activity,” he added. “Again, employees are expected to use common sense as well as adhere to the guidelines in order to avoid any offensive or objectionable behavior.”

Brautigam said that within the past year, Mississippi Power has instituted policies to address electronic file management and retention too.

“The use and storage issues associated with the significant rise in electronic information across a system the size of Southern Company has made it necessary to begin to limit the amount of electronic storage employees can have,” he said. “That makes each of us consider what information is important and how best to retain access to it.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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