U.S. agencies looking to wireless for workers

James Downes, who runs the U.S. Treasury Department's wireless program, tells the story of a senior government official who wanted wireless access. The request, Downes said, was a chance to "impress the new boss" with a demonstration of various kinds of data, such as economic reports, that could be made available via a wireless device.

But when Downes sat down with the official, it turned out that all he wanted was a text-based pager for simple messages. "Talk about bursting your bubble," Downes said.

That tale drew chuckles yesterday from other IT managers at a government wireless computer security conference sponsored by the Potomac Forum Ltd., a nonprofit training company in Potomac, Md., and the U.S. General Services Association, among others. But the story also illustrated the problem that some IT managers in deploying wireless: the disconnect between end users and managers regarding wireless deployment.

Unlike the Treasury official, there are many federal workers who want full-featured wireless devices. Some, like employees at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), are even buying their own personal digital assistants and trying to download material from their workstations.

"There is a tremendous demand by our users; they see [wireless] as a wave of the future," said G.E. Woodford, INS security program manager.

But that demand also raises an assortment of issues, especially regarding security, he said.

INS, along with many other agencies, is developing a policy to manage the use of wireless devices to catch up with employee demand. Among the rules being considered are a ban on the use of personally owned devices to ensure that government data isn't compromised and the encryption of stored and transmitted data, said Woodford.

The key to any successful policy will be the imposition of technological safeguards that prevent wireless-toting employees from compromising security, said IT managers.

"You can't invoke security by telling somebody they can or can't do something," said Donald E. Meynig, director of information management at the U.S. Army Materiel Command, which has been issuing Blackberry two-way pagers to senior managers. "You have to be able to enforce that."

At many agencies, "There are a lot of people trying to use those devices right now and running into access problems because security is not allowing them to punch a hole through the fire wall," said Downes.

The Treasury Department has issued a request for proposals from contractors to develop a standardized wireless system, with security for both the device and network. Once that contract is approved, Downes expects the use of wireless devices by government officials to mushroom.

Another factor pushing the use of wireless devices by federal employees is the desire to expand telecommuting options for workers, such as giving them the ability to work at locations other than their offices.

To help agencies deploy wireless systems, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) last month launched a new program called e-Connected Intelligent Remote Operations that allows federal agencies to find private sector companies already arranged in strategic partnerships to deliver wireless solutions.

"The most precious resources in the federal government are the people, and that's where the federal government is most at risk," said Charles E. Popelka, director of business development at the GSA. Wireless solutions will help "give people more time to do their jobs."

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