Governments Testing Use of Personal Devices for Work

New technologies are making it safer for government employees to access sensitive data on their personal computers and smartphones.
November 2011
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

Nationwide, government agencies are struggling to make technology more mobile. The motivation is simple: Giving employees the tools to work while on the road or from home potentially makes them more productive. But doling out slick new smartphones and tablets to government workers is a tough sell in the current budget environment.

Many agency employees, however, already may own the solution, thanks to an explosion in consumer mobile technology. By some estimates, more than half of all U.S. mobile phone users carry smartphones like Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s BlackBerry or the Google-based Android. What’s more, manufacturers expect to ship 45 million tablets this year, most of them Apple’s hot-selling iPad.

A growing number of employers -- including governments -- are seeking ways to take advantage of that fact. “It does make some fiscal sense for the state not to duplicate devices that people might already have -- whether it’s mobile phones, laptops, tablets or other things,” says California CIO Carlos Ramos, adding that several agencies in his state are testing plans to let employees plug their own devices into work networks.

Other states also are piloting “bring-your-own-device” programs, which generally allow employees to use their own technology at work and get reimbursed for some of the expense through stipends. According to CIOs, much of the pressure to adopt these programs comes from employees themselves, who, accustomed to using sophisticated mobile technology in their personal lives, chafe at the idea of not using it on the job.

But letting agency employees access sensitive data on their personal devices isn’t as easy as it sounds. IT departments generally insist that employees use government-owned equipment to ensure they’re secure. Opening agency systems to personal devices raises serious questions around data security and retention.

Luckily, some new technologies are helping to address these concerns. Mobile security tools now let agencies enforce access rights and passwords on almost any end-user device. They also allow IT managers to block stolen devices from connecting with agency networks and remotely wipe out any data stored on the device.

More broadly, many agencies are deploying desktop virtualization technology, which eliminates much of the computer processing and data storage performed by personal computers. Instead, numbers are crunched and data is stored in computers locked inside agency data centers. Employees’ computers merely provide a window into these processes through an encrypted network connection.

“This lets us change the way we view devices -- both personal devices and the devices on your desk,” says Utah CIO Steve Fletcher. “Employees can use any device they want, because we’re not storing anything on the device. It’s all running in a state-controlled data center with our security around it.”

All of this makes it easier for governments to accommodate user preferences, while benefiting from the fact that many employees already own sophisticated mobile devices. But for employees, using the device of their choice will come with some strings attached.

In Nebraska, for example, employees must agree to turn over their device to the state if information on it becomes subject to a discovery request. “We started that this year and we don’t have a lot of takers,” says state CIO Brenda Decker.

Still, states are moving in the right direction on this issue, even as they hash out the details. Most CIOs acknowledge that employees will try to use personal devices at work -- with or without official approval. Smart agencies are trying to get ahead of the issue by drawing up proper policies and requiring security tools, and they’re becoming a little more mobile at the same time.