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Left to Their Own Devices

Employees have built work styles around transporting data on their own personal media. The question for employers, of course, is whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

In April 2004, we reported on the growing — some would say rampant — use of unauthorized technologies in the workplace (see “Monsters Inc.“). The list of these so-called rogue technologies included flash drives, digital cameras, and MP3 players.

The problem: employees were plugging these swell gadgets into computer ports (universal serial bus, firewire) that aren’t typically monitored by enterprise security software. Hence, an infected music file could let loose a devastating virus capable of toppling an entire network. At the time, we noted that employers were doing everything they could to discourage the use of these devices, including threatening to fire workers who violated company computer policies.

Apparently, the threats aren’t working. Various surveys indicate that the use of rogue technologies at work continues unabated, particularly the use of portable storage devices like thumb drives and MP3 players. Richard LeVine, a senior manager and security expert at consultancy Accenture, says these portable drives have become so ubiquitous that employees often lie rather than give them up. “People have built work styles around transporting data on their own personal media,” he notes. “And they will not be stopped.”

I Am Joe’s Thumb Drive

You can’t blame them. While most business machines have gotten way smaller over the past 20 years (monitors, computers, mobile phones), personal storage media has not. In 1985, most business users relied on cumbersome disks (5.25-inch floppies) to transport files from place to place. Today, most business users rely on cumbersome disks (Zip or CD-ROMs) to transport files from place to place. Capacity has increased, but ease of use has not.

Lacking better options, younger workers have turned to their own flash drives and MP3 players. Flash drives, alternately called key-chain drives or thumb drives, hold up to 2 gigabytes of information and require no additional sources of power. Unlike CD-ROM disks, the devices (marketed by such vendors as SanDisk, Memorex, Verbatim, and Disk2Go) don’t have to be formatted. Simply plug the gadget into a USB port and the drive appears on-screen. Thumb drives are cheap, too: a 128-megabyte version can be had for $25.

Palm-sized MP3 players are more expensive. Apple’s wildly popular iPod Nano, for instance, retails for $249. Then again, the iPod features powerful productivity and entertainment software and holds up to 4 gigabytes of information. Even Apple’s less-pricey iPod Shuffle comes with a 1 gigabyte flash drive — plenty for most business uses.

Scott Montgomery will attest to that. Montgomery, a principal and creative director at Indianapolis advertising agency Bradley and Montgomery, recently visited a client to give a presentation. Upon arrival, however, Montgomery ran into a technical problem that prevented him from connecting his laptop to his client’s projector. Fortuitously, Montgomery had also stored the presentation on his iPod Shuffle. He simply plugged it into the USB port on the client’s PC, then ran the presentation on the iPod, using the client’s projector as a monitor. “The Shuffle has enough storage for all but the most egregious PowerPoint presentation,” he notes.

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