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Employee use of social networking platforms soared at companies worldwide in 2011, with active use of games and applications tripling since 2010 as workers logged in for business and personal reasons, a recent report says.
The research from network security firm Palo Alto Networks, which measured network traffic at 1,600 companies, suggests that employers should explore exactly how workers use social networking to determine which activities might hurt productivity or pose a security risk.
“Companies must determine how to safely enable these technologies on their networks so that users can maintain the levels of productivity that many of these applications can afford, while at the same time ensuring that their corporate networks and users are protected against all threats,” René Bonvanie, chief marketing officer at Palo Alto Networks, said in a statement.
The assessment of network traffic at companies in North America, the Asia-Pacific region and Europe found that active use of social networking platforms—such as playing games, posting to LinkedIn and other sites, using social plug-ins and Facebook applications—more than tripled in aggregate based on the percentage of social networking bandwidth consumed. An average of 16 social networking applications were found on each network.
The percentage of social networking bandwidth consumed by Facebook applications alone grew more than three times, the report said.
While Twitter posting (measured separately) was flat, employees flocked to the platform, which saw a seven-fold increase in percentage of social networking bandwidth consumed versus 2010 levels, according to Palo Alto’s Application Usage and Risk Report.
The report speculated that businesses’ use of Twitter as a marketing and recruiting tool helped fuel the growth, alongside employees who followed tweets about protests and disasters around the globe. This raises the question of whether organizations should allow, block or manage employee tracking of news in near real time, the report says.
The firm found that browser-based file sharing occurred in 92 percent of participating companies, with personal- and business-oriented applications in use.
All this social networking carries potential benefits and risks for organizations, and managing it probably isn’t as simple as banning it, the report states, which suggests organizations set manageable social networking policies.
While critics may rightly complain that some employees waste time playing Facebook games at work, the report noted that many businesses use Facebook applications as part of their marketing and service offerings. For example, Caterpillar uses social media to engage with its business-to-business customers by talking about big projects and new equipment, appealing to customers’ “love of their jobs, and their successful use of Cat products.”
In contrast, entertainment-oriented Zynga games were found in 53 percent of participating organizations and consumed 5 percent of social networking bandwidth, which may warrant more scrutiny and control.
The Nike+ Challenge on Facebook aims to help runners achieve goals. An employee who uses the application at work to post fitness progress “is clearly not performing their daily tasks, but studies have shown that fit employees are more productive. Should the use of the Nike+ Challenge application be blocked?” the report asks.
Organizations can’t ignore the security risks, either. Social networking sites have trained users to be too trusting about sharing information, and that trust carries risks of cybercrimes and inadvertent data sharing, the report notes.
Companies must balance between protecting their networks and enabling usage, and because applications use more than just the most obvious server port, security experts must look at all apps and ports, “not just the popular or commonly used ones,” the report states.
Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.
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