Popular social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, are causing a stir in the financial services community as well as other highly regulated industries as companies seek ways to control how the sites are used to communicate with potential clients and colleagues.
Social networking sites have proved valuable for sales-lead generation, marketing and general broker-client relations, but regulators have been quick to take notice and to offer the same warnings they did more than a decade ago when e-mail and instant messaging (IM) became common.
However, controlling communications on social networking Web sites is far more complex for corporations because they're attempting to control communications on Web sites that are outside their IT systems and that are almost continuously changing or adding to the number of applications that can be used to network.
"It is a big issue. In fact, I think it's a bigger issue [than e-mail and IM]," said Ted Ritter, an analyst with Nemertes Research. "For IM and e-mail, you pretty much use standard port and protocols. You just have to be in the right spot in the network to capture it and monitor it."
Social networks are more akin to webmail, where there are many different ways to access the sites, which makes it more complicated from a technology standpoint, Ritter said.
"For instance, what do you do about people who have mobile updates to Facebook?" he said. "From an audit standpoint, as auditors become more aware of the issues, they are going to look for controls."
Ritter said businesses will not only have to monitor social networking communications, but they will have to capture the traffic, audit it and log it.
Issue first cropped up with e-mail, IM
Around the turn of the century, the financial services industry grappled with controlling IM and e-mail traffic. Soon after the electronic messaging mediums became popular, a pattern emerged in the business community where financial firms would first block all electronic communications external to the company, then they would adopt proprietary email applications for corporate wide communications or restrict the ports over which IM traffic could travel in order to monitor and capture the communications.
The same patterns are emerging with social networking, experts say, and seeding a cottage industry of vendors offering software and services to control and capture corporate social networking traffic. Some of those vendors include enterprise instant messaging security vendor FaceTime Communications, firewall provider PaloAlto Networks, IM and mobile text messaging archiving firm DexRex Gear and SaaS middleware provider Socialware.
Today, many businesses are attempting to simply block all access to social networking sites for employees who would fall under regulatory scrutiny, such as broker-dealers and sales and marketing representatives, even though these employee are finding the sites invaluable.
"The first step organisations needs to take is they need a reality check," Ritter said. "They need to take ownership of what's going on in social networking. Just blocking sites doesn't work. Employees always find a way around it. And letting everything through is too risky."
Ritter and other industry experts say social networking sites present a far greater oversight problem than IM or email - even webmail - because there are so many applications associated with them, including instant messaging tools and gaming applets, such as Farmville or Mafia Wars on Facebook. Simply blocking sites such as Twitter or Facebook with a URL filter isn't difficult.
"The problem you have is all the tunnelling applications that can get around those controls," said Chris King, director of product marketing for PaloAlto Networks. "Google [the term] 'circumventing URL filtering,' and you'll see what I mean. Some blog sites like Lifehacker.com, and even the Wall Street Journal, publish things like top 10 ways to get around your security controls."
For example, King said, a company employee could simply install a proxy on a home computer, connect it to a cable modem, and when the employee is at work he can connect to that home IP address and circumvent the corporate filter.
"There's everything from Proxy.org, an application called UltraSurf, which is the darling of high school students, to something called Core, which is the darling of spies," there's a whole bunch of applications that make getting around traditional controls easy.
Regulators cast a watchful eye
Over the past 10 years, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other regulatory bodies have focused more attention on strict enforcement of communications rules. For example, the SEC's Rule 17a-4 requires the monitoring and capture of electronic communications, and the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) Rule 2210 and 3010, also requires firms to monitor and store communications with clients. Neither agency has as yet felt compelled to specify requirements around social networking traffic, but it is implicit that they fall under the same rules as e-mail and IM, Ritter said.
In 2006, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) established that companies must establish protocols for capturing electronically stored information prior to civil court cases. Electronic discovery of e-mails for civil court cases can run into the millions of dollars, and violations of federal regulatory statutes could lead to penalties that aren't cheap either. In 2002, the SEC fined five firms a total of $8.25 million for violating 17a-4 and NASD Rule 3110 by not properly monitoring and capturing e-mail traffic.