Is Facebook Hurting Government Productivity?

No doubt you've seen the studies that show how social networking sites hurt productivity, and I am pretty sure you've read, heard or watched countless stories about how companies have tried to solve that problem. And you would have to be living in a cave in Bora Bora—specifically a cave without WiFi—to not know that when computers go down because of a denial of service attack or security breach, productivity takes a hit.

However, some really shocking news that you've probably heard nothing about is turning what you think you know about that topic upside-down.

Some twelve weeks ago, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) was the target of a sophisticated hack attack. The EDA is a relatively tiny unit of the Department of Commerce, with only 215 employees, that makes grants to distressed communities from six regional offices. The hackers installed a virus that was so virulent the EDA was cut off from the rest of the Commerce Department, as well as the rest of government, and all its systems were shut down in order to prevent the virus from spreading through the system.

What's shocking about this attack is not that it happened; in recent months NASA, the Department of Defense and the State Department (to name a few) all experienced serious attacks. In fact, five years ago the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security was shut down by a hack. The Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team reported that the number of breaches in federal systems grew in four years from under 6,000 to over 44,000 in fiscal year 2011, the Washington Post reported.

None of that is surprising. Here's what is: Remarkably, despite the return to pre-historic fax-machine technology, the EDA seems to be functioning fairly well, perhaps even better in some ways. The Washington Post reported that as a result of the lack of cyber connectivity, human contact between bureaucrats and aid-seekers had increased dramatically, and things were actually getting done.

[Related: Read more columns by Adam Levin]

The beleaguered folks at the EDA still have no e-mail, no Google, and no Instant Messaging. Heaven forbid they have to use the US Post Office, to the extent it still exists. Also, they don't have access to their Facebook accounts, dating sites, Internet gaming, and, er….. more "inappropriate" forms of pictorial entertainment.

One can't help but recall that in 2010 it was reported that employees at the Securities Exchange Commission had been surfing some pretty graphic websites (and I don't mean National Geographic) as much as eight hours a day. Some of the employees who were exposed (forgive the pun) were earning more than $200,000 a year, and much of the activity uncovered had happened during the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. (Note: some federal employees do have access to Facebook and other social media sites at work, and others don't.)

So, why did this happen at the EDA of all places? Let's forget about the fact that the threat and reality of security breaches have now become part of the otherwise serene workaday world of government employees everywhere. It's simply is what is. Indeed, perhaps the most shocking thing about this attack is that the perpetrators knew there was such a thing as the EDA.

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