Group texting may be IT's next headache

Imagine all user chatter channels avoiding your compliance apps

SXSW this year seems to be all about eliminating the best (and worst) thing about text messaging: it's mainly a one-to-one exchange.

Until now that's meant that, even when full keyboards, add-on keyboards, text-through-the-Web and other enhancers of un-productivity made it easier, people at work tended to keep their texting down in favor of email, IM or other ways to pass on short messages.

For IT that was a good thing because it limited the exposure and potential penalties from not having information critical to important corporate decisions recorded and filed for reproduction later.

Email and instant messaging posed the same threat at one point, but both could be brought in-house, or (theoretically) recorded as they passed through the network.

Whether messages about the particular topic that became the subject of a lawsuit actually was recorded was a different question. As far as regulatory compliance went, it was only necessary to have the business process and IT mechanisms in place to make sure it was being done routinely.

Because most text messaging systems are owned and run by the carriers, corporations have to either make sure employees are using the company's own text-messaging apps, or make arrangements with carriers to get and keep the records, which are erased much more quickly than email stored on an ISP's servers.

All the big regulations address texting specifically, by the way. Though sometimes they refer to it as Mobile IM, all treat it as a form of regulated communication.

Most companies have specific policies against it in specific circumstances.

For example: As a reminder to staff, please be aware that cell phones are not secure devices and texting cannot be used to communicate patient-related information to the personal devices of physicians or to anyone else. Text messaging is neither secure nor in compliance with HIPAA regulations and standards of encryption. If a physician asks you to forward a test result or any form of PHI to his/her cell phone, you must let him/her know that texting patient information is not permitted...

-- WakeMed Health & Services, Raleigh, N.C.

Which, after I spent a couple of days really excited about how much easier my life and meshed communication needs would be using any of the half-dozen group-text services making such a big splash at SXSW this year, I realized what a big headache it was going to be for compliance managers.

If you have to jump through extra hoops to send texts to more than one person on a regular basis -- using group addresses for workgroups, departments or divisions, managers especially are going to use other means to send those messages. Usually email.

If they can set up, for free, as many group addresses as they want, and add anyone they want to those lists, they'll do it and switch a certain amount of their group bloviating to text messaging rather than email.

People filter out their email, especially group emails from the boss.

The boss doesn't like to have her emails filtered out. She'd like people to read them.

People still read their text messages, because not many are group texts from the boss.

With group texting services, the boss is going to own their text screens, and a lot of communication that's supposed to be swept up in compliance arrangements will go on in media completely inaccessible to most of the mechanisms set up to catch them.

Don't try to forbid it. That won't work. Just have a look at them yourself and make sure you 1. have a text-messaging compliance system that works, and 2. have one that works for more than one form of group text message.

So far the favorite seems to be GroupMe; Beluga has lots of fans, but was just bought by Facebook, so beware your privacy requirements.

Fast Society is attracting a lot of attention, partly for its voice-conferencing ability, partly for its focus on organizing parties, or just getting team members in the same place at the same time.

Do yourself a favor and get ahead of this; group texting is free (to them) and gives people easy access to an audience with very little effort.

That's not only a winning combination for the end user, it equals two of the three elements in the formula for Internet Douchebaggery -- not the kind of exposure your company will appreciate after whatever outrage some user is up to is discovered by the rest of the world.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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