Do firms own employee phone if they pay bills?

Summary:When companies reimburse staff’s smartphone bills, there are privacy complications and mobile security issues to be mindful about, notes industry analyst.

Employers and employees are fast warming up to using personal smartphones in the office for work, says one analyst. However, he added a caveat that companies and workers have more than just the issue of bill reimbursement to think about, such as the implications of mobile security and privacy.

Marc Einstein, industry manager at Frost & Sullivan, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that the growing prevalence of employees bringing their smartphones to work is not surprising. He attributed it to the swell in smartphone ownership, as well as the fact that most people would find it more convenient to incorporate work duties into their personal smartphones.

In an Oct. 18 blog post, sister site ZDNet quoted Gartner analyst Eric Paulak as saying that more companies are encouraging workers to bring their own devices to work and to pick up the tab from their own pockets. At the same time, he noted that employees need to consider if it makes business sense to use the BYO (bring-your-own) model in the first place, before going with the hasty decision of whether to pay for its workers' phone bills or not.

Noting the trend of personal-liable devices entering the corporate space, Frost & Sullivan's Einstein said most companies currently do subsidize at least part of their employees' mobile phone bills, even though they have no obligation to do so legally or even morally.

"[There is] nothing legal or moral to speak about, but there is a business case for it. Any reasonable company would take the business perspective to understand the value of having well-connected workers, especially in this age of the mobile workforce and mobile Web," Einstein explained. Certain jobs also require workers to be on the move most of the time, such as salespersons and reporters, which necessitate having mobile access to business information, he added.

Companies do not underestimate the benefits of having their workers constantly connected through their smartphones, Einstein added. There is increased productivity since they would be using their phones for work tasks outside of office hours--even with distractions like games, he said. With most smartphones being GPS-enabled, he explained that if workers lose their way in unfamiliar or foreign territory, an employer could pinpoint their staff's location. The navigation element also helps in delivery services. For instance, when a customer calls to ask why a delivery is delayed, a company can check if the staff is nearby or not.

New implications and complications
Deciding how much and who pays the phone bills would be just the tip of the iceberg for personal smartphone use in the office, noted Einstein. He foresees a number of major challenges in the near future as the line between corporate- and personal-liable smartphone use blurs.

Einstein noted that as more people use their personal mobile devices to access company documents, mobile security threats will become ever more stark. An October survey by Juniper Networks found that consumers largely neglect to do anything about minimizing such mobile security risks, which would inevitably pose a huge risk to the enterprise's data and confidential information.

He acknowledged that "conflicts between privacy and being connected" are also going to increase because when the company pays its employees' mobile phone bill, it begs the question of whether the firm now has the right to check all the calls and messages, including the ones made for personal reasons.

This can turn into a situation of "is it my property or [my company's] property", the analyst elaborated, giving the example of office e-mail. "People don't realize it, but anything you send using the company's e-mail is [the company's] property, and it has the right to read it," he said.

Some companies, Einstein noted, do not purchase any IT equipment for their staff, meaning workers bring not only their own smartphones but also their laptops to the office and are given the option to install the company's software on their devices. However, this goes back to the same corporate-personal data tangle, he said, where the hardware belongs to the employee and the software belongs to the employer.

Technical and non-technical complications can also arise when both company and personal data are kept on the same device. For instance, when a worker loses his mobile phone, any confidential or sensitive business information is at risk of being leaked or abused. Similarly, when a worker leaves the company, he may have to surrender his smartphone in order to have the company data removed--which may expose or wipe out his personal data, such as contacts, messages and photos.

Laws have yet to be written that address all these implications arising from the BYO model, said Einstein. However, that is not stopping companies from trying to offset the cost of phone bills indirectly through other means such as providing Wi-Fi in the office, he added.

Byron Goh, who works in advertising, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that he would prefer paying for his own phone bills and getting a subsidy from his company, instead of the company directly picking up the tab. "It's just more secure that way since it's inevitable that my smartphone is both my work life and personal life. I don't think it wise that the company or I should mess with that fine line," he commented.

Topics: Hardware, IT Employment, Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

About

Jamie Yap covers the compelling and sometimes convoluted cross-section of IT and homo sapiens, which really refers to technology careers, startups, Internet, social media, mobile tech, and privacy stickles. She has interviewed suit-wearing C-level executives from major corporations as well as jeans-wearing entrepreneurs of startups. Prior... Full Bio

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