Playboy on iPad renews debate over privacy, workplace rules

Every issue of Playboy will be available on the iPad in a browser window beginning in March, the magazine confirmed Wednesday.

That news ressurects an old, thorny concern for IT managers who don’t want objectionable material stored on personal hardware used at work.

Companies can only impose limited controls—through human resources policies and network management tools—over tablets and smartphones that run outside of workplace networks but still store and use plenty of corporate data and e-mail, analysts said Wednesday.

“There’s always been worries about porn with desktops and laptops…, but as you get new devices like iPad, it becomes a bigger problem,” said Will Stofega, an analyst at IDC. “You obviously don’t want an employee doing a presentation on an iPad which comes up with Playboy during the presentation.”

Stofega credited Apple with blocking nudity in apps in its App Store, but he urged greater efforts by Apple and other vendors—as well as corporate IT shops—to set policy controls in some fashion to limit browser-based content or apps outside of the App Store. “I see Apple continuing to block nudity in apps, but on the other hand, I see corporate IT wanting a tool to manage content policies,” Stofega said.

It’s not just Apple hardware that’s affected. Apps for Android tablets and devices can contain nudity, a point Apple CEO Steve Jobs has made in the past to dig at Android.

Asked about where they draw the line between personal devices and workplace values, several IT managers at large companies refused to discuss the issue. But one IT manager at Baron Funds in New York—where 50 iPad users connect to a Wi-Fi network at headquarters—said he has attempted to use Blue Coat Systems software to block content, at least while the users are at work.

“It’s not easy [to block content], but if you have Blue Coat in-line before your firewall, you have a good chance of doing it,” said Henry Mayorga, Baron’s manager of network technology. The setup requires changing the proxy setting on the iPad.

“More challenging is making the change on the iPad in a way that a savvy user cannot change,” Mayorga said. “That is still an unresolved issue. To this point, the Apple devices do not play nice in corporate networks where security restrictions need to be enforced.”

Stofega said most IT managers won’t talk about blocking porn because the issue is so sensitive.

“This is a thorny issue that nobody wants to talk to talk about,” Stofega said. “No analyst or manager or Wall Street expert wants to touch the issue of porn” on the Internet or devices.

That concern is centered around whether a co-worker or client might accidentally see something objectionable and file a complaint or drop a valuable account.

Kevin Burden, an analyst at ABI Research, recalls a one-time colleague at a former employer being arrested several years ago for storing child pornography on his workplace laptop. “It’s the only case involving porn [on a workplace device] that I’ve ever heard of,” Burden said. “The guy got fired and got ruined [when later arrested]. There is a real danger with pornography on devices, and that case goes to show what could happen when you play around with highly toxic and objectionable content.”

Playboy is probably the least objectionable nude content available on the Web, Burden and others said. “But there are many other concerns, including employee productivity when somebody isn’t paying attention to work because they are surfing this content,” he said.

The former colleague was caught when his laptop broke down and he turned it over to his workplace IT help desk for repairs, Burden said. “IT went through it and found the pictures,” he said. “He was an idiot.”

While there are some technology protections available to IT shops, most analysts agreed that written corporate policies are needed. The policy would have to address how content is used on a device in the workplace, even if it was bought by the worker and isn’t always running over a corporate network.

“This is the kind of thing that not a lot of people have talked about for years,” Burden said. “You need a policy that talks about how employees should not get caught with something that embarrasses the company. It has to be explicit and clear.”

Burden and Stofega noted that Apple has focused more on the consumer than the business user, while Research in Motion and its coming BlackBerry PlayBook tablet will allow IT shops to filter what content workers receive through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server. Many vendors offer third-party applications that monitor content, but that would only be possible if a device is used on a corporate-linked network, they noted.

The PlayBook is going to have partitions called personas that will allow a separation of corporate and personal content stored on the device, Burden said. When an employee leaves the company, the IT shop would be able to quickly erase corporate data on the device, leaving all the personal data intact. But even that approach wouldn’t prevent a worker from downloading and browsing porn, he said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, argued that the potential problem posed by Playboy access on the iPad is probably not any worse than with other devices. Ultimately, corporations have to rely on a worker’s good judgment.

“Playboy is pretty soft porn compared to many sites out there,” Gold noted. “If you access it over the corporate network, IT can always block a particular URL or IP address. But ultimately, I think it’s about educating users to the company’s policies. However, if it’s their own device, it’s going to be very difficult to get a user to agree to limits. At that point, it’s just educating them to be mindful of what they do at work versus on their own time.”

[Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld.]

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