When You're Not Allowed to Talk (Ever)

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While the word “collaboration” is now generally used to refer to the possibility of good things at work, there was a time when being called a “collaborator” was a stinging rebuke. It was particularly used to refer to people who worked alongside corrupt government regimes and ascribed as much culpability for wrongdoing to the collaborator as to those he or she worked with. This ability to work together for good or evil – yes, even in the modern world – had led to various industry and government regulations that require ethical walls to be put in place to prevent communication between specific parties or groups within an organisation. These are commonly seen in the financial services industry to prevent one person from sharing insider information that they are allowed to have by virtue of their job role with a colleague in another division who is not allowed access to that information due to the ability to unfairly profit from buying or sell trades. But ethical walls also exist as a matter of good business practice in large, distributed organisations. Think about the ad agency who provides creative services to two competitors in the same industry; each respective group in the ad agency should be barred from interacting. Ditto in a large legal firm where two separate legal teams are representing different clients in a merger or acquisition scenario. If you want to win such business opportunities, you have to be able to prove that you can absolutely prevent the two respective teams from having any interaction with each other.

The requirement for ethical walls in tools like Office 365 goes beyond just access control to private team workspaces. While access privileges can indeed prevent one group from accessing the workspace of another group, it’s always possible to change access privileges temporarily for nefarious purposes, or for two people on the respective teams from interacting outside of the team workspace to share information. In days gone by, this could have been an email thread in Exchange – “take a look at this document” – or something similar.

Ethical walls demand something much, much stronger. It’s like having a security guard for each member of each team, and any attempt across teams to speak, give someone on the other team anything, or even make eye contact will immediately result in physical intervention. “You must not do this.” “You cannot do this.” “I will prevent you from doing this.”

As a purveyor of communication tools to many of the large organisations around the world, Microsoft faces questions around ethical wall capabilities in Office 365. In the context of Microsoft Teams, the product was released to general availability on March 14, 2017. Only eight days later – on March 22 – a member of Microsoft TechCommunity asks if there are any plans for ethical wall capabilities in the product.

Well, Dan had to wait for a couple of years, but the new Information Barriers service for Microsoft Teams was released to open preview at the end of April. It enables an administrator to create policies to prevent interaction between people and groups via Microsoft Teams. While Information Barriers was announced for Teams only, it appears that the service will be extended in the future to be a cross-workload capability for all of Office 365, which it indeed needs to become. But the first steps are good, and incremental improvement is fine.

When an information barrier policy is in place, it essentially makes invisible the people who are not allowed to interact. For example, if you try to add a member to a private team, that “not allowed to even make eye contact” user won’t show up in the member search results. Or if someone attempts to start a new private chat, he or she won’t be able to do so. And Microsoft says all attempts to do things you are not allowed to do will eventually be logged so compliance officers can see who is still trying to circumvent the policies in place.

 Action  User Experience if policy is violated
 Adding Members to a team The user will not show up in search 
 Start a new private chat  The chat is not created and an error message appears
Invited a user to join a meeting The user will not join the meeting and an error message appears
Screen sharing is initiated  The screen share won’t be allowed, and an error message appears
 Placing a phone call (VOIP)  The voice call is blocked

 

Of course, this doesn’t prevent two “don’t even make eye contact” people from meeting after work for dinner or at the local cafe (or pub, for those with a penchant for something stronger). If you have that level of nefarious activity going on, then a private investigator will be needed, because so far, Microsoft hasn’t announced proximity alerts based on user-associated devices with worldwide tracking using Intune and other services in Enterprise Mobility + Security. They probably could do it, but that’s getting a bit creepy.

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