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Limits of Personal Use of Information Technology

By Cheryl Seaman and Judy Blair

If someone said you could use your NIH computer, email, phone, printer, copying machine, etc., for "non-government" business — in other words, for your own personal use — would you believe it? It might surprise you to learn that NIH has a policy that permits personal use, provided that use remains within certain limits. You might want to review "Limited Authorized Personal Use of NIH Information Technology (IT) Resources" on the web at

The policy recognizes NIH staff as responsible individuals who deserve a professional, supportive work environment. Allowing some personal use is considered to enhance the quality of the workplace, thus helping to retain skilled, qualified staff. However, before you start thinking about running a private business venture out of your NIH office, spend some time reviewing the definitions and "qualifiers" attached to using government-owned IT resources. Why? Because overstepping the permissible boundaries of use can lead to loss of use privileges or even disciplinary actions (e.g., reprimand, suspension or criminal prosecution, if appropriate).

In general, personal use is allowed if the use:

  • Is incidental with minimal cost to the government and does not interfere with staff productivity, the NIH mission or operations.
  • Is not used to misrepresent oneself or NIH and has no potential for public embarrassment to NIH.
  • Does not compromise NIH systems or security safeguards (no modifying equipment, loading software or making configuration changes without pre-approval).
  • Is performed on non-government time (e.g., during lunch).
  • Does not violate the DHHS Standards of Ethical Conduct, or any other federal laws or NIH policies.

Examples of acceptable personal use include researching educational institutions, checking on personal investments, seeking employment and communicating with a volunteer charity organization. Examples of unacceptable personal use include visiting sexually explicit or offensive Internet sites, using IT resources to support for-profit businesses, violating copyrights or software licensing agreements by installing, downloading or copying (in whole or in part) copyrighted materials in any format, and downloading large video, sound or other files that use large amounts of network resources. To further strengthen NIH's implementation of the policy and ensure legal and regulatory compliance, user access to prohibited web sites will be blocked by the end of 2002.

In summary, you can use IT resources for personal reasons; however, be careful that the use is within the boundaries of this policy. If, after reviewing the policy, you still have questions about what might be considered "authorized" use, consult your supervisor.

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