Neither rain, nor snow, nor bird flu

Security, disasters give telework a boost

Security breaches put focus on telework

Problems with stolen laptops, hackers and mistakenly released data have brought more attention to telework initiatives and have prompted calls to bolster the infrastructure serving remote workers.

Among the security snafus:

» The Navy in June put personal information for about 28,000 sailors and their families on an unsecure Web site.

» The Agriculture Department reported in June that data for up to 26,000 employees had been exposed to a hacker.

» A notebook with Social Security numbers of 13,000 Washington government workers and retirees participating in a retirement plan run by ING U.S. Financial Services was stolen from the home of an ING employee.

» The Energy Department reported that in September a hacker may have accessed employee data.

» The IRS said a notebook with the names, Social Security numbers and fingerprints of almost 300 employees and applications was misplaced in May.

» A notebook and hard drive with information on 26.5 million veterans and service members was stolen in May from the home of a Veterans Affairs Department employee.

Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition Inc., said agencies need to have between 25 percent and 30 percent of their employees working offsite in different locations, every day to have a true continuity of operations plan.

Rick Steele

Nicked by the recent rash of laptop thefts and natural disasters that cripple business operations, the federal government has renewed its push for agencies to beef up their telework plans.

The push will mean more business for companies that offer IT-related and networking services, industry officials said.

Federal telework legislation passed in 2000 required that, within six months of enactment, 25 percent of the eligible federal workforce had to be able to telework to the maximum extent possible.

Congress had several reasons for passing the law:

» Relieve overcrowding

» Lower real estate costs

» Reduce absenteeism

» Cut gas consumption

» Relieve traffic congestion in the Washington area

» Provide jobs to the disabled.

But now the impetus to increase the number of government employees who are teleworking, at least part time, is coming from security concerns and the need for government agencies to continue operations in the midst of a crisis such as an Avian flu pandemic, a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Lap of security

A wave of security breaches involving government data over the last few months not only has endangered the personal and financial information of millions of people, but also has increased calls for security among teleworkers, most of whom work on notebook PCs.

Government organizations, such as the Agriculture and Energy departments, IRS and Navy, have reported incidents of stolen notebooks, hackers and inappropriately released data. But the biggest incident involved the theft of a laptop, containing information on 26.5 million veterans and service members, from the home of a Veteran Affairs employee.

On June 28, an unidentified person turned in the notebook; the person was not charged nor is considered a suspect. FBI said its first examination of the hardware showed that the database is "intact and has not been accessed since it was stolen," the Associated Press reported June 29.

These incidents, coupled with calls for ensuring that the government's business will continue if faced with a disaster, have brought the telework initiative back into the spotlight.

The focus of the initiatives have shifted from meeting the congressional mandate to enhancing security and establishing continuity-of-operations planning, said Tom Simmons, area vice president of U.S. government operations at Citrix Systems Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The company provides access infrastructure products that let PCs, IP phones and other devices remotely access applications across wired and wireless networks. It recently started offering continuity of operations planning assessments to federal agencies.

"With an increasing focus and funding around continuity of operations planning for an Avian flu pandemic, we're seeing a rejuvenation" of interest in telework, Simmons said.

Telework needs to be central to any agency's plans for reacting to emergencies, disasters, inclement weather or other situations that can affect operations, said Don Blair, deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management, at a June 27 telework seminar in Arlington, Va. The White House's National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza has charged OPM with updating its telework guidelines.

Seventy-one percent of respondents to a survey by the Telework Exchange, a research, information and resource group, said their agencies would be unable to continue operations in the wake of a flu pandemic, even though they have a telework component in their continuity of operations plans.

The Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership between the federal government and the IT industry, in May issued a report that noted deficiencies in the federal government's pandemic preparedness plans.

Agencies need to have between 25 percent and 30 percent of their employees working offsite, in different locations, every day to have a true continuity of operations plan, said Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition Inc., a non-profit group that supports telework.

Here comes the business

With these factors in mind, some in industry believe they will see more opportunities for telework services. The need will increase for services related to collaboration tools, continuity of operation functions and Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12, which establishes a common identification verification system for all federal agencies, industry officials said.

In response, industry expects to see more government demand for collaboration tools, such as data- and videoconferencing, file-sharing applications and electronic meeting systems. Professional services that can offer assessments, migration plans, project management and ongoing lifecycle management are among other services that can support telework, said Jennifer Nisenoff, director of technical leadership and business planning at AT&T Government Solutions Inc. of Vienna, Va.

Agencies also will have to look at data surge capacity over their infrastructures to determine whether they can handle a sudden increase in traffic when more workers telecommute, especially when a crisis disrupts normal business operations, said Charles Viator Jr., vice president of federal sales at Rivulet Communications Inc., a provider of technology solutions for IP networks.

"While being able to work from alternative locations is important, having the core applications and secure data are essential for operational success," AT&T's Nisenoff said.

Newly launched telework initiatives at some agencies might spark opportunities for systems integrators.

The Defense Information Systems Agency in June issued a request for information for tools to counter insider threats to Defense Department information systems. The agency plans to use the tools to monitor insider network activity on servers, desktop computers and notebooks.

DISA also is using telework to retain employees who will be affected by the closure and relocation of facilities under Base Realignment and Closure activities. When DISA's headquarters in Arlington, Va., closes, employees will be relocated to Fort Meade, Md. The defense agency will offer them the choice to telework a couple of days from home.

The agency also will set up a classified telework center at Fort Meade to let new employees work from other locations, said Jack Penkoske, DISA's director of manpower, personnel and security.

The Marine Corps is working on a pilot program for a virtual work environment that will let employees access their offices from remote locations. The Homeland Security Department's Office of the National Capital Region Coordination is looking into investments for telework in 2008, although the agency has not issued more information.

The General Services Administration's $20 billion Networx contract, which will be awarded in 2007, also contains a section on teleworking.

In general, the government will buy telework-related services using contracts, GSA schedules and governmentwide acquisition contracts such as NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation III program, Citrix's Simmons said. Bids on SEWP IV were due by June 22.

Tony D'Agata, vice president of federal government, public sector at Sprint Nextel Corp., said most of the wireless contracts under which his company delivers services to government agencies can be used for telework programs.

Not all technology companies agree that the renewed emphasis on telework will boost their businesses.

"We have not seen any initiative that's really brought us any business through the telework environment," said Mark Wenners, sales manager of GTSI Corp.'s mobility solutions group. The Chantilly, Va., company offers solutions that can be used for telework, but does not have a telework line of business.

"We have seen business increase in mobility, but it also could involve things other than teleworkers," Wenners said.

A March report found that telework in the government increased to 41 percent earlier this year from 19 percent in 2005. The report, from computer hardware and software reseller CDW Government Inc. of Vernon Hills, Ill., was based on surveys of more than 500 federal workers, including 235 federal IT professionals.

Thirty-two percent of respondents said their respective agencies started a telework program in the past year; 45 percent said their agencies had not started a program.

"We've just scratched the surface of the telework market," Simmons said. "As more agencies work to comply with the congressional mandate and look to figure out how they can do it securely, without putting data or privacy issues at risk, the opportunities ? are huge."

Staff Writer Roseanne Gerin can be reached at regerin@postnewsweektech.com.

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