by Esther Schindler

Your server is spewing spam on the Internet. Have a nice holiday.

Jan 04, 20073 mins
Data Center

The CIO was headed to his brother-in-law’s house on the Friday before Christmas, expecting to have a nice, relaxing weekend. Instead, his hosted e-mail provider called on the cell phone: the company had contracted the Stration virus, and it was spewing spam all over the Internet. The company could no longer send or receive e-mail since it was already on the blacklists.

And oh, happy Christmas.

This is not, alas, a hypothetical example. I watched the debacle unfold from the periphery, complete with the IT manager running over to the office on Saturday to literally unplug network cables from each computer. I watched the CIO discover that the virus came in-house either through a personal laptop or because someone checked personal e-mail from work and (you’d think they’d know better by now) opened an attachment. Over the course of the holiday week, the CIO changed the corporate policies on e-mail and computer use from “recommendations” to “breaking these rules is a firing offense.”

The result, for the employees, is that everything is locked down. If you work at that firm, you can no longer use instant messaging, you can’t check your personal e-mail from work, and you can’t bring in a home laptop for the kid to play with while Mommy is working.

From a security perspective, I understand the rules perfectly. Certainly, I understand why the CIO finally got the security-religion, and he probably did the right thing. On the other hand, I’ve been in companies where everything is locked down so tightly that the overwhelming feeling is “the company doesn’t trust me!” In point of fact, it’s less that the company distrusts its employees (even though some of them really are naive enough to click on things they shouldn’t) but that they distrust the bad guys who are willing to bring down a corporate network over the holiday, just so they can send out more spam. But do the workers see it that way?

I think we all have a visceral reaction to the perception of “too much control,” however, and it can’t be good for morale. Early in my  career, while I worked my way through programming school, I was an Accounting Clerk II in a sea of desks (we didn’t even rate cubes). Employees weren’t permitted to make a personal phone call except during lunch or our twice-daily 15-minute breaks. And believe me, we watched the second hand for the clock to hit 10:00. (Harley, the Repair Accounting supervisor, would loom over you at 10:14:45, so there was good reason for the clock-watching.) As you might imagine, I hated to be treated as though I was a prisoner, allowed fresh air for 30 minutes a day.

Surely, any CIO or manager who has to institute serious security for the company contemplates these things. But where do you draw the line between “treat employees with respect, and educate them to practice Safe Hex” and “lock down everything to protect the company’s assets”? How do you decide where to draw it?