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Hot topic at RSA: The pitfalls and promise of social networking

A highly entertaining and thought-provoking panel session on social networking in the workplace was held today at the RSA Conference. Titled ‘Lifestyle Hacking: Social Networks and Gen Y Meet Privacy and Security', the panel featured perspectives from academics, security vendors, and private-sector management.

There were few empty seats for this jam-packed session, and its format of tongue-in-cheek skits –designed to illustrate real-life security threats from social networking in the workplace – was a refreshing departure from the typical monotonous PowerPoint-accompanied lecture. On several occasions the audience broke out into laughter and applause.

One thing was quite apparent from the dialogue: a rift between generations in the workplace exists with respect to how social networking is viewed when engaged in on company time, and with company property. “We teach children in school to use all the social networking tools to solve problems, which is a good thing”, said Gillian Hayes of UC Irvine, and a member of the panel. “But then we often take those same tools away in the workplace.”

Many organizations block access to social networking sites for productivity reasons rather than for security. “Baby boomers think the road to productivity lies in maintaining a single focus” noted panelist James Routh global head of application security at JP Morgan Chase. But he added that this is hardly true for Gen Y’ers, who are quite comfortable with synthesizing multiple media streams at one time.

Because cutting off access to social networking sites in the workplace often confounds younger generations, who commonly employ these tools to network and solve real-world problems, panel moderator Gary McGraw of Cigital called social networks a “necessary evil” for organizations, especially if they are to attract and retain younger talent.

In the end, the panel agreed that there is no one ‘magic bullet’ solution to alleviate the security and productivity concerns of social networking use in the workplace. Rather, each organization must assess their needs while balancing aspects of security, recruiting, retention, and productivity.

To paraphrase, resistance to social networking by organizations may be futile, especially if history is our guide. For it was not so long ago that personal phones and email were considered obstacles to productivity in the workplace, and we all know how these turned out.