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What constitutes acceptable use?

Be careful with your acceptable use policy; the stricter it is, the harder it is to enforce.

Nowadays, almost every organization with an Internet connection has some sort of acceptable use policy in place....

In our litigious society, we recognize the importance of defining the types of behavior that we will and won't tolerate in order to protect our organization against individuals who misuse our resources. HR and IT professionals alike are all too familiar with the tales of organizations being sued for sexual harassment when an employee's questionable surfing habits made other employees feel uncomfortable in the workplace. We've also heard horror stories about companies held accountable for fraud perpetrated by employees using the business' Internet connection.

In many organizations the reaction (or overreaction, in my opinion) to this threat has been the implementation of draconian acceptable use policies such as the one below:

"Corporate computers and data connections are to be used exclusively for business purposes. Any personal use of corporate resources is strictly prohibited and will result in disciplinary action, up to and including possible termination."

While this policy seems like a wise idea to cover the collective corporate rear-end, it's actually somewhat dangerous. Let's look at a few holes in this type of policy:

It's impractical. Employees are going to use the Internet for personal reasons. They're going to check the scores from the game or see how the market's doing. That's just the way it is.

It could reduce employee productivity. Employees use the Internet at work to accomplish tasks that might take much longer otherwise. If they need to get a birthday gift for Mom, they can probably do that much faster online than they could by leaving the office for a few minutes and walking down to the corner store.

Inconsistent performance could legally invalidate the policy. If your policy is written as harshly as the one above, you'll need to enforce it with that level of severity. If you don't punish each and every infraction consistently, the courts may see your singling out of serious incidents as selective enforcement. They then might find the whole policy invalid, and you're back in the same legal jam you'd be in if you never had the policy in the first place.

So what's the alternative? Many organizations have a policy that's somewhat looser, such as the following:

"Corporate computers and data connections are intended for business use. Use of such resources for any activity that might be deemed offensive, illegal, harassing or otherwise detrimental to the company's business interests is strictly prohibited. Reasonable personal use of corporate computing resources may be acceptable based upon individual department guidelines. Employees who violate these guidelines are subject to disciplinary proceedings."

This policy gives you some flexibility. It strictly prohibits the activities we definitely don't want on our networks but provides department managers with some flexibility regarding the amount of personal use they'll permit their employees. This allows managers to use discretion in the cases of employees who work longer hours (such as salesmen on the road with their laptops surfing the Net in the evening) or have extenuating circumstances (such as a working mother who wants to keep an eye on the nanny-cam). Remember – flexibility is the key to a strong acceptable use policy!

About the author
Mike Chapple, CISSP, currently serves as Chief Information Officer of the Brand Institute, a Miami-based marketing consultancy. He previously worked as an information security researcher for the U.S. National Security Agency. His publishing credits include the TICSA Training Guide from Que Publishing, the CISSP Study Guide from Sybex and the upcoming SANS GSEC Prep Guide from John Wiley. He's also the Guide to Databases.

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This was last published in December 2003

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