Government Employees Banned From Using The Social Networking Tools They're Told To Use

from the bureaucracy-at-work dept

Last year, we wrote about how it seemed like a mistake to us that the government in Montenegro had decided to block access to Facebook on government computers. While many disagreed in the comments, Facebook and other social networking sites are quickly becoming useful tools of communication (for some, it’s their primary tool for communication). Blocking access is missing the point, and preventing a useful tool from being utilized, just because some might abuse it.

It turns out that the US government actually is doing the same thing… even as it’s supposedly encouraging an era of social networking inspired “transparency” and an embrace of “Government 2.0.” The NY Times notes the bureaucratic mess of government officials trying to make use of this enabling technology including this stunning quote:

“We have a Facebook page,” said one official of the Department of Homeland Security. “But we don’t allow people to look at Facebook in the office. So we have to go home to use it. I find this bizarre.”

Meanwhile, Wired is highlighting a similar story. Apparently, the US military has been blocking access to YouTube, but set up a special alternative just for troops, called TroopTube. And, yet… it started blocking that site as well. It may just be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, but it seems so common in government that it’s really rather ridiculous. These tools, while they may be prone to misuse and time-wasting, are also becoming key ways that people communicate. For a supposedly more open and transparent government, allowing access is a necessity. Deal with the abuses separately, rather than making an outright ban.

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Comments on “Government Employees Banned From Using The Social Networking Tools They're Told To Use”

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R. Miles says:

Facebook over email?

Or even a corporate intranet page?

Even the company I work for blocked this site.

Whether or not it’s a communication tool doesn’t exclude the fact many companies aren’t going to chance liability because an employee makes a stupid mistake.

No, not from Facebook, but readers of Facebook who can take action.

For the company I work for, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) kind of gets in the way of that

HIPAA + 1 stupid employee = company liability.

Would you, as a business, take that risk?

Pixelpusher220 says:

Re: Facebook over email?

@R. Miles:

The point isn’t that you open Facebook up to everybody, the point is you should have a ‘few’ trusted people, i.e., your Media Relations people, as the only people who are allowed access those sites.

Its childs play to implement routing rules that only allow access to certain sites based on what your internal IP address is. So they can clearly limit it to only those on the ‘allowed to access Facebook’ list.

No more liability than you had previously since the Media people are the only ones doing the updates.

It’s just an overly simplistic bureaucrat who doesn’t get that you can segment networks to do what you want and uses a 5 ton sledge hammer to drive in a picture hook. (and the network ppl at the agency who don’t convince him otherwise)

some old guy (user link) says:

The Military

…The Military just blocks any site that sucks all their bandwidth… They have not done a very good job of making sure they have enough, so anytime they find a site is hampering the network, they just block it. This is not on a national level, but on a more localized one.

What they should be doing, is fixing their networks… But hey, this is the military we’re talking about here…

That, and I have to admit… there’s way too much time “playing” going on in the workplaces these days. Face it, most people aren’t going to facebook to “better communicate with business associates”, they are going there because its a fun waste of time. It’s more of a game than a communications platform.

silentsteel (profile) says:

Re: The Military

The military’s bandwidth has been allocated in such a way that its main use, communication between forward deployed units and command centers takes priority. Social networking sites have not written their pages in a manner that gives the option of not sucking bandwidth. Why should the military have to account in their tactical network design, which is limited by technology that will handle “being in the field” for sites that do not account for them? FYI, some of the gear the military uses will work happily in Iraq without air conditioning, find me some Cisco gear that will do that.

Of course, there is also the issue of troops inadvertently compromising a unit’s location and/or mission through a post on facebook or myspace.

sometechguy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The Military

Jason the problem there is that a military news/reporting/morale organization (people in uniform) came up with trooptube and implemented it. Unfortunately they have no communication or tie to the civilian organization which runs the non-combat military network and controls firewalls and bandwidth. One probably didn’t even know about the other. Overall it’s a seperate problem at eh size our government is no one part has any clue what any other part is doing/

chris (profile) says:

Re: Re: The Military

The military’s bandwidth has been allocated in such a way that its main use, communication between forward deployed units and command centers takes priority. Social networking sites have not written their pages in a manner that gives the option of not sucking bandwidth. Why should the military have to account in their tactical network design, which is limited by technology that will handle “being in the field” for sites that do not account for them?

military networks of all kinds are segregated. there are separate machines and networks for classified material and unclassified material, and there are networks for tactical use vs. strategic vs. garrison use. compartmentalization is one of the cornerstones of operational security. if your unit isn’t compartmentalizing, its not doing its job.

the bandwidth argument is lame no matter what sector or industry you talk about because it comes down to network admins that are too lazy or scared to administer their networks. sure, you can buy more bandwidth, or you can get off your ass and do something to better manage the bandwidth that you already have.

you can have multiple subnets, vlans, routes, and even multiple uplinks that can minimize the effects of user abuse on your network. you can also add QOS to the mix and if you are worried about security there is always IDS and IPS. if facebook can take down your network, then you as the network admin need to do your company a favor find a new job.

rather than just blocking something, why not investigate the problem? why not talk to the people that are hogging bandwidth and see what can be done to help them and the rest of the network? you know that management is going to side with the user instead of you anyway, why let the issue go that far? you can tell who they are and what they are doing by looking in your firewall or proxy logs. if processing logs is too boring for your short attention span, there are products that process logs into visualizations, so you can look at graphs instead.

there are a ton of network monitoring and analysis tools that are free and open source, all it takes time to set them up. you don’t even need fancy managed switches either (you know, the cisco kind that needs air conditioning) since you can build a passive tap for like 20 bucks from parts from radioshack and monitor a connection with a pair of network cards:

Eponymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The Military

“Of course, there is also the issue of troops inadvertently compromising a unit’s location and/or mission through a post on facebook or myspace.”

Don’t forget Twitter. Pvt. Numbnuts tweets “About to ambush terrorists in village X, wish me luck”, ridiculousness ensues.

Damn you, Barbara Walters!

RLN says:



It’s obvious you haven’t done any time in the military. Group punishment is the standard. I can tell you after having served 22 years in military communications, the military’s technology corps, that there is no other organization that is as poorly run and misunderstanding of the true power of technology. It, the military, will only arrive at a solution after someone else demonstrates it for them.

somedumbtechguy (profile) says:

Web 2.0 is not a communcation tool

Spin facebook, MySpace, and Twitter any way you want but the fact is they are not effective communication tools for business. Business get’s done, via phone and email, SMS maybe in some cases. Blogs, Facebook bulletins, and MicroBlogs are a great way to waste hours unproductively. No matter how “effective” a tool you may trick yourself into thinking these are a company will never get back the hours their employees spend creating a profile and answering emails from long lost idiots that are sitting at work searching for people they never even talked to in High School.

Email and Cell phones have been repeatedly proven to be large distractors and decrease productivity (the check the message impulse.) And the lost productivity can be equated to going to work without sleeping the previous night. Add “microblogs” blogs, and facebooks random bulletin chain spam of the day and you have no work getting done.

I have nothing against these technologies on personal time. If you have nothing better to do with your life than spend hours reading about what your friends are doing then great, go blog about it. I’m just tired of people calling these business tools, and then fat old out of touch CEOs wasting time and resources trying to make a buck off of them only to find out the only people that can are the ones who own Facebook and Myspace.

your name is dead on says:

Re: Web 2.0 is not a communcation tool

Tell Nickelback and a 100 other bands I don’t like that MySpace is not a business communications tool. Tell college recruiters (not of athletes, but of students) that facebook and MySpace aren’t business communications tools.

Tell my entire IT department that chat is a distractor and time waster.

Just because you can’t figure out how they benefit business doesn’t mean they have no value. I use or facilitate the use of all those tools and while some people do use them to play Mob Wars and such, some are out there drumming up business, connecting with the public and guarding my company’s reputation.

Web 2.0 is most definitely a business communication tool. That’s not its only use, but it is definitely a use.

somedumbtechguy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Web 2.0 is not a communcation tool

My name was right on. I missed a couple of business cases you’re right. Spreading music, promoting movies, and some sales networking can definitely be done through web 2.0 tools. On the other hand when companies like IBM, HP, Microsoft, etc. spend a fortune creating Facebook pages and second life islands it’s nothing more than a time and money waster. If the business you do deals with people, i.e. marketing, recruiting, or sales then ANY method of reaching people is a business tool. Hence the expensible drinks at the bar until 2am. If you are in any other role these “tools” waste time. IM and chat is like SMS, if it’s business related it’s a quick easy communication method and makes sense. If you have 20 IM windows open and none of them is a colleague it’s a different story.

maybe not so dumb says:

Re: Re: Re: Web 2.0 is not a communcation tool

I’m willing to meet you half way on this. I think the way some businesses go about it, the money is just being wasted, but I think that has more to do with approach and goals. You have to go into it knowing that what you’re going to get out of it is not a pot of gold, but just another way to start a conversation with your customers. So don’t spend a billion dollars, but do spend something…

You are right though that Joe Cubicle checking facebook is probably not contributing too much to the bottom line. Of course, right about now, he’s probably checking his brackets instead. So what are ya gonna do…

Anonymous Coward says:

Web 2.0 is NOT the problem!

The problem is people not having enforced deadlines on their work or just being plain bored with their hum drum job.

Many of the posters here talk about these websites as if they are the CAUSE of the problem. I worked at one place that we had complete unrestricted access to the internet, I never dawdled at that job cause there was no time to! Now at my current job they block many of the sites we are talking about here… and I have taken up sudoku. Don’t need fancy web 2.0 for time wasting!

Anonymous Coward says:

Shaking head at this articel

Unless DHS is unlike any government agency I have worked for or with in the past 35 years this article is pure BS. Any employee that has a NEED to see X or Y or Z. website can get permission to do so. Depending on the security level of an organization the permission can be granted by either an immediate supervisor, a division or office head.

In some high security organization I am acquainted with, if someone has then need they are provided with a second PC at there workstation that is 100% independent of the agency’s main/work network.

Let’s look at the flip side of the articel’s headline. “Two thousand employees of DHS are wasting taxpayers money surfing facebook on government time and equipment!”

Dude says:

Security is the issue

This has nothing to do with productivity, its security thats an issue. Social networks are inherently insecure. From the govt standpoint better safe than sorry.

When I worked for a bank, all social networks, streaming media, and web based email was blocked. This dramatically decreases the chance of an employee “allowing” a virus or worm onto the internal network.

Yakko Warner says:

Definitely not a new problem

Twelve years ago, I worked at a company where my job was to automate the reporting and move it from paper to the corporate intranet. The IT contact I had told me the tool we would use for publishing was this program called “Common Ground”. It was like a virtual printer, that took the pages, stored them as images, and wrapped them in an executable. Very much like a PDF, but you didn’t need to install a viewer like Acrobat, because the viewer was bundled with it. Then we’d put the executable on the intranet.

We bought the Common Ground creator software, created the reports, put them on the web page, but no one could view them. Turns out, it was IT policy that no executables could be on the intranet. Right hand, left hand.

So we decided to publish PDFs instead. We bought Acrobat, created PDFs, and put those on the intranet. Then IT came down on me like a ton of bricks when they started getting calls from our clueless managers asking how to install Acrobat Reader, because here I was publishing in a format that required installing a piece of software, and how dare I make this decision when I had no clue how the licensing for this [free] viewer software might affect the company, etc etc. Meanwhile, the Acrobat Reader installer was already available on their own “application installer” tool, available to anyone with a clue. Left hand, right hand.

Jon Thompson (user link) says:


It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that Facebook collects your information, behavior and location when you go there. Why would you want Facebook learning this about the government employees? While you could argue that just about all sites do this, I argue that data collected from Facebook is much more intimate information

Jim Durbin (profile) says:

Government 2.0

There are specific reasons why government offices block those pages, and it’s located in the TOS of the site.

Steve Radick is doing excellent work on this, and government agencies are making strides towards correcting it, but it’s not just stupidity. Government agencies can’t agree to indemnify a site, yet that’s what the TOS requires. There’s also the question of where court cases are tried – again, the agency can’t agree to be bound by terms of a state court.

That said, there is a lot going on in Government 2.0, but it takes time, and willing companies.

If we can’t get major companies to stop blocking social media sites, we can’t exactly blame the government (of which I’m no defender).

SomeCommsGuy says:

Cleaning up some facts

(1) DHS does NOT have a facebook page. There are pages that seem to be from US Dept of Homeland Security, but there isn’t an official page. There might be in the future, but not now. There are independent folks, some employees, some former employees who have created group and networks.

(2) Anonymous Coward is right. Folks who need access to do their jobs can get access.

(3) There is a way to go to get a decent strategy for using social media and getting the policy together. A way to go.

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Mark Easterling (user link) says:

I know

I used to work a help desk for a DHS agency. If someone had a need to access sites that were not allowed on the coast guard data network, they would be given a second machine that connected directly to a civilian network. Don’t worry about employees wasting government money. We were always pretty good about catching those slackers and getting them in trouble with their supervisors. I doubt things have changed too much.

david boyett says:

web 2.0

being that im in the military and have a good knowledge of soldiers in general i understand that social networking is a good thing it helps better communicate with soldiers down range and it also helps people oconus keep in touch with family and freinds in america. now especialy overseas its hard to call home its expencive and the internet is a pain in the butt because u have to sign a contract with some local national company which can be a problem.

but the real problem i think is like any thing else most soldiers do is excess. i dont think i have ever met one soldier that can just do something once or just a little bit. 99% of the time if you give a soldier something he likes hes going to use it to the extreme. and on top of that, myspace for example, how many of your freinds have the sexy little freinds on their page that they dont even know its just sexy pics. and what about all the minor children with half nude or nude pics of them self on their facebook page because they dont have good parents to moniter them. ok so facebook you say! i say good riddance in the work place. most soldiers have common sence but it only takes one to do something stupid to put to much information out there and cause a tactical nightmare for a unit. for example i just got done last week having a conversation with a soldier for posting a spread sheet of a line up for a nights shift that included names ranks positions job titles and what their mission was that night

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