Astanford: Why Digital Security is a trade-off

Digital security is a trade-off. If securing digital data were the only concern a business had, users would have no control over their own computing environment at all - the Web would be forbidden territory; every disk drive would be welded shut. That doesn't happen, of course, because workers also need the flexibility to communicate with one another and with the outside world.

The current compromise between security and flexibility is a sort of intranet-plus-firewall sandbox, where the IT department sets the security policies that workers live within. This allows workers a measure of freedom and flexibility while giving their companies heightened security.

That was the idea, anyway. In practice, the sandbox model is broken. Some of the problems is technological, of course, but most of the problem is human. The model is broken because the IT department isn't rewarded for helping workers do new things, like finally passing the N.Y. Regents exam or studying for an advanced degree, but for keeping existing things from breaking. Workers who want to do new things are slowly taking control of networking, and this movement toward decentralized control cannot be reversed.

The most obvious evidence of the gap between the workers' view of the world and the IT department's is in the proliferation of email viruses. When faced with the I Love You virus and its cousins, the information technology department lectures users against opening attachments. Making such an absurd suggestion only underlines how out of touch the IT group is: If you're not going to open attachments, you may as well not show up for work.

Email viruses are plaguing the workplace because users must open attachments to get their jobs done - the IT department has not given them another way to exchange files. For all the talk of intranets and extranets, the only simple, general-purpose tool for moving files between users, especially users outside the corporation, is email. Faced with an IT department that thinks not opening attachments is a reasonable option, end users have done the only sensible thing: ignore the IT department.

The email was just the beginning. The Web has created an ever-widening hole in the sandbox. Once firewalls were opened up to the Web, other kinds of services like streaming media began arriving through the same hole, called port 80. Now that workers have won access to the Web through port 80, it has become the front door to a whole host of services, including file sharing.

And now there's ICQ. At least the IT folks knew the Web was coming-in many cases, they even installed the browsers themselves. ICQ (and its instant messaging brethren) is something else entirely-the first widely adopted piece of business software that no CTO evaluated and no administrator installed. Any worker who would ever have gone to the boss and asked for something that allowed them to trade real-time messages with anyone on the Net would have been turned down flat. So they didn't ask, they just did it, and now it can't be undone. Shutting off instant messaging is not an option.