Is Remote Work Increasing Data Hoarding?

By: Clint Modesitt, Manager of Digital Forensics

Many companies have been forced to rapidly pivot to remote work, often with suboptimal preparation on the part of both employers and employees. From implementing an ip phone for business use to activating VPNs that allow employees to access work servers, there are a lot of changes taking place. This can lead to a number of problems for IT, but one which is seldom mentioned is the increase in data hoarding.

What is Data Hoarding and Why is it a Problem?

Data hoarding or digital hoarding is retaining electronic material that is not of use to the user. While this may not be a problem when it is an individual collecting eclectic or esoteric information, it is a real issue for companies.

Data hoarding increases your use of both bandwidth and storage space. It can also waste time. Unorganized, cluttered data is harder for employees to sort through to find things they do need. Hoarded data can also result in security and compliance risks, especially if that data is unencrypted, and slow down response if there is a breach. In extreme cases, a company might not even know about all of the data their employees have stored.

Why Does Remote Work Make the Problem Worse?

So, what does this have to do with remote work? There are a number of ways in which remote work can make data hoarding worse. Here are some of the issues that can come up:

  1. Employees storing personal data in the company cloud. While working from home, employees are under less supervision. Even more likely; many remote workers are using their own computers, which can result in poor separation between personal and company data and personal data being accidentally included in company backups.
  2. IT is spending more time supporting remote employees and less time on things like ensuring old data is deleted on schedule and performing audits…or even just keeping an eye on storage space usage.
  3. More than likely, IT will not be able to monitor employees’ personal storage space even if it is being used to store company data. This can cause significant compliance issues (employees should be required to encrypt all company data), but it’s hard to police compliance, especially when people are working remotely. Furthermore, personally identifiable information that finds its way onto an employee’s home computer or phone can cause issues with privacy law.
  4. Bandwidth needs can become extreme when people are working from home. Many companies have found that their VPN subscription suddenly became insufficient. The more data is stored and accessed, the higher the bandwidth need.

How Can you Reduce Data Hoarding?

The first step is to audit your data and delete anything that is data ROT – redundant, obsolete, or trivial. This may mean setting a cutoff date before which data is deleted. For example, if you have a customer database, you should delete inactive customers after a period of time, say three to five years.

Once you have cleaned up your “data ROT,” it’s time to move forward with policies to help your company and employees reduce the amount of data they hoard. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Encourage employees to delete emails that are no longer relevant and more than X days old. One symptom of individual data hoarding is never deleting emails. Having a streamlined email system can help people keep this under control.
  2. Provide remote workers with tools that make it easier for them to keep business and personal data separate. This might include using virtual desktops, training employees on how to set up a separate user account for work, etc.
  3. Have a solid bring your own device policy. While you might not want to apply very strict rules to personal computers (employees are likely to resist being asked to uninstall video games), you need to have some basic guidelines in place.
  4. Avoid increasing your company’s storage space without a good reason, forcing employees to consider whether there is room for data they keep.

While data hoarding is not a new issue, it has become a greater concern for companies forced into temporary, unplanned remote work. As many companies decide to stay remote for an extended period of time or even move towards permanent remote work, it becomes even more important not to allow data hoarding to get out of control.

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