Another Federal Employee Caught Watching Porn at Work

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The employee admitted watching adult pornography at work but retired amid a government investigation.

A Bureau of Land Management employee used his work computer to access adult pornography inside a government office, a federal watchdog recently unveiled

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General sent an investigative report to BLM’s director in late November regarding the inappropriate use of a government device, following an accusation that an employee accessed child pornography on an agency-issued computer. 

“The employee admitted viewing adult pornography on multiple occasions but denied any involvement with child pornography,” the OIG wrote in a summary of the investigative report released Tuesday. “The employee said he knew that [Interior’s] policy prohibited his actions.”

According to the OIG, the employee retired during the investigation and no evidence of child pornography was revealed. But the summary includes few details into what else the OIG found. 

While the department has rules in place barring the in-house access to porn, this is not the first time a porn-watching employee breached them within one of Interior’s components. In October 2018, the IG disclosed that an employee at the U.S. Geological Survey with “an extensive history of visiting adult pornography websites” used an agency-issued computer to visit around 9,000 adult video sites—and subsequently infected USGS networks with malware linked to Russia. That employee also retired. 

Similar porn-related scandals have plagued other agencies over the years, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Securities and Exchange Commission and IRS. But a senior forensic examiner told Nextgov Thursday that the latest report may demonstrate that federal officials are making deliberate moves to stop personnel from accessing explicit content on federal devices. Though he now puts his digital forensic expertise to use at Atlantic Data Forensics, William Stumme spent almost three decades as a federally credentialed investigator working in several IG offices and in special investigations across various federal agencies. During that time, Stumme said insiders investigated employee access to prohibited pornographic sites “not infrequently.” 

“Any time that you are out interacting with the internet, whether on adult sites or other content that’s not directly work-related, you begin to open up opportunities for malicious software,” Stumme said. “So this is another avenue that someone could use to infect government systems.”

He explained that most federal agencies have fairly sophisticated systems to block the majority of prohibited content and many also use commercial products that are routinely able to block “the most common activity and the most common sites.” But a problem arises in the fact that new unsuitable content is constantly popping up. At the same time, a lot of the websites that may have banned content are not just exclusively about those topics, so if agencies were to block everything in the realm, they may unintentionally bar a bit of legitimate content that their users need to get to.

“They use a lot of algorithms and tracking to follow those sites and to track the new ones, but it’s impossible to block 100%,” he said. “And a lot of the terms that we might use for that kind of content have dual-meanings, so you can’t necessarily block everything or you’ll have unintended consequences.”

Stumme noted that most agencies have fairly specific rules of conduct that employees are required to abide by and they often periodically remind personnel to comply more than once a year. While legislation has been introduced multiple times to ban pornography at federal agencies, Stumme said rendering it a crime would be difficult because social media sites like Instagram and others make it challenging to characterize what is inappropriate content. 

“I think the more you try to legislate that, that line is going to be harder to draw of what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate,” he said. 

But the fact that the agency is consistently issuing multiple reports on the activity demonstrates that federal officials are taking the problem seriously. “That’s an important point of prevention,” he said. The issue is not unique to the government.

“I think it’s a problem that all leaders, or all managers, may have,” Stumme said. “But I think the government holds themselves to a higher standard and that may be the problem point, rather than it just being a government issue.”