Left to Their Own Devices

Employees have built work styles around transporting data on their own personal media. The question for employers, of course, is whether the benefits outweigh the risks.


In April 2004, we reported on the growing — some would say rampant — use of unauthorized technologies in the workplace (see "Monsters Inc."). The list of these so-called rogue technologies included flash drives, digital cameras, and MP3 players.

The problem: employees were plugging these swell gadgets into computer ports (universal serial bus, firewire) that aren't typically monitored by enterprise security software. Hence, an infected music file could let loose a devastating virus capable of toppling an entire network. At the time, we noted that employers were doing everything they could to discourage the use of these devices, including threatening to fire workers who violated company computer policies.

Apparently, the threats aren't working. Various surveys indicate that the use of rogue technologies at work continues unabated, particularly the use of portable storage devices like thumb drives and MP3 players. Richard LeVine, a senior manager and security expert at consultancy Accenture, says these portable drives have become so ubiquitous that employees often lie rather than give them up. "People have built work styles around transporting data on their own personal media," he notes. "And they will not be stopped."

I Am Joe's Thumb Drive

You can't blame them. While most business machines have gotten way smaller over the past 20 years (monitors, computers, mobile phones), personal storage media has not. In 1985, most business users relied on cumbersome disks (5.25-inch floppies) to transport files from place to place. Today, most business users rely on cumbersome disks (Zip or CD-ROMs) to transport files from place to place. Capacity has increased, but ease of use has not.

Lacking better options, younger workers have turned to their own flash drives and MP3 players. Flash drives, alternately called key-chain drives or thumb drives, hold up to 2 gigabytes of information and require no additional sources of power. Unlike CD-ROM disks, the devices (marketed by such vendors as SanDisk, Memorex, Verbatim, and Disk2Go) don't have to be formatted. Simply plug the gadget into a USB port and the drive appears on-screen. Thumb drives are cheap, too: a 128-megabyte version can be had for $25.

Palm-sized MP3 players are more expensive. Apple's wildly popular iPod Nano, for instance, retails for $249. Then again, the iPod features powerful productivity and entertainment software and holds up to 4 gigabytes of information. Even Apple's less-pricey iPod Shuffle comes with a 1 gigabyte flash drive — plenty for most business uses.

Scott Montgomery will attest to that. Montgomery, a principal and creative director at Indianapolis advertising agency Bradley and Montgomery, recently visited a client to give a presentation. Upon arrival, however, Montgomery ran into a technical problem that prevented him from connecting his laptop to his client's projector. Fortuitously, Montgomery had also stored the presentation on his iPod Shuffle. He simply plugged it into the USB port on the client's PC, then ran the presentation on the iPod, using the client's projector as a monitor. "The Shuffle has enough storage for all but the most egregious PowerPoint presentation," he notes.

Of course, at $129 a pop, it's unlikely employers are going to outfit a lot of workers with Shuffles, let alone Nanos, which are almost twice as expensive. But they may not have to. As cheap storage goes, thumb drives are hard to beat. Moreover, a recently released standard called U3 is fueling a new generation of sophisticated flash-memory drives that can actually run software. One popular program, PowerHouse Technologies's Migo, allows users to transfer files, Web settings, and E-mail from their desktops to their thumb drives and then use any computer as if it were their own.

The question for employers, of course: Do the benefits of these new storage devices outweigh the risks? Accenture's LeVine says yes. "If you succeed in stopping this usage, are you slowing the workflow here?" he asks. "What's it going to cost you if Joe can't walk down the hall and show someone his work?"

Elaine Appleton Grant writes frequently about business technology.

Small Wonders
Seagate Pocket Hard Drive, 5GB, $99
Skinny: Bigger than thumb drive, but still quite portable.... Cord wraps around device; nifty touch.... Lots of storage for the price.
Kingston Data Traveler II Plus Migo Edition, 2GB, $80
Skinny: 2 gigs very capacious for something this small.... Lanyard included.... Comes with handy Migo software for easy synchronization.
Swissbit Victorinox Retro Alox, 1GB, $144
Skinny: Alox may be the mother of all gimmicks: 1-gigabyte thumb drive is also a working Swiss Army knife.
Verbatim Store 'N' Go USB Flash Drive, 128MB, $25
Skinny: One of the older thumb drives, but cheap.... 128 megs not enough to hold an entire photo album, but will hold plenty of Word or Excel files.
Apple iPod Shuffle, 1GB, $129
Skinny: Known as a music-storing device, snazzy iPod Shuffle can also store files. Works with Mac or PC.... Automatically charges while synching.
Apple iPod Nano (Color LCD), 4GB, $249
Skinny: Less than half the size of mini iPod.... Only question: Nano is so small, how durable is it? Consider buying a case.

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