(Associated Press)

Survey: Federal employees commemorate Memorial Day by watching porn”

— Headline on article, May 22, 2015

“What do federal employees do on their days off? When it’s a federal holiday like Memorial Day, you might imagine firing up the grill and hanging out with friends and family. Some new data released today shows that many may also fire up their computers and get infections. EnigmaSoftware.com, a company that makes anti spyware products, found that personal computers in Washington, DC (which has one of the highest concentrations of federal employees in the country) experience a 51 percent spike in infections on federal holidays. EnigmaSoftware.com looked at reports of infections on its customers’ computers in Washington, D.C. on all federal holidays over the last two years (Memorial Day, MLK Day, Veterans Day, etc.). The data show a 51 percent spike in infections on federal holidays compared to the typical number of infections.”

— Press pitch by EnigmaSoftware

The combination of federal employees and pornography viewership has all the makings of a catchy soundbite, just waiting to go viral. The above headline and survey caught the attention of one of our readers, who was skeptical about the facts. The implication that federal employees in Washington spent Memorial Day binge-watching NSFW material also led to some social media buzz around the holiday.

As the presidential campaign gears up, candidates may be tempted to use it to bash government ineptitude; GOP candidate Carly Fiorina already has used the notion of porn-watching federal employees as one of her favorite talking points.

There, indeed, have been instances where federal employees were found to have viewed pornographic Web sites at work. A recent watchdog report found the Environmental Protection Agency was not promptly punishing employee misconduct, including cases where employees watched porn on government computers. But what exactly did the survey on computer viruses in Washington find? Does it relate to the topic of federal employees’ use of government devices, or their activities on government time?

The Facts

As is so often the case, the actual findings are much less salacious than the headline makes them seem.

Florida-based EnigmaSoftware looked at infection data from personal computers in four cities with the highest concentration of federal workers, as reported in 2013 by Government Executive: Washington, D.C., Colorado Springs, Virginia Beach and Honolulu.

The survey of the four cities looked at the average number of daily infections for the month leading up to a federal holiday, and compared it with the number of infections detected on a federal holiday. The company found that Washington had the highest spike in malware on federal holidays in the past two years. Colorado Springs ranked second, and the level in the other two cities were not significant enough to warrant a good comparison of data, according to the company’s spokesman, Ryan Gerding.

The 51 percent spike in Washington was much higher compared with the overall spike on federal holidays, which is about 30 percent, the company said. The highest spike in Washington was on Veterans Day, at 92 percent. The lowest was on Christmas, at 23 percent. Memorial Day ranked second, at 63 percent.

They measured this by looking at computers that downloaded the company’s anti-virus software. The company declined to say exactly how many computers had downloaded the software in the four cities. But Gerding said there were at least 1,000 infections per day on average in Washington during the time of the survey, which does not necessarily mean the infections were on 1,000 separate computers.

The caveats are important. This study looked at private computers – specifically, Windows PCs. So there is no way of knowing who used these computers.

There also is no way to know exactly what caused the viruses. It could be adult content, but it also could be anything that was linked to a virus. That means spam mail, a link in a hacked social media account, as a part of illegally downloaded movies and shows, a bogus “update” to a program in your computer, etc.

The company wanted to examine infection rates when there is an anticipated increase in the number of people who are home or on their computers than usual, Gerding said. The assumption is that people who are stuck at home spend more time online. So in studying infection rates on federal holidays, the company specifically looked at cities where there would be a higher number of people spending the day off work on those days. “What we were interested in was not so much the overall infection rate of a particular city, but how big of a spike over that city’s average there was on a specific federal holiday,” Gerding said.

Let’s assume the worst: that the 51 percent spike in infections in D.C. on federal holidays was all from federal employees, and that there was one computer per infection. If there was an average of 1,000 infections per day in Washington, a 51 percent spike would mean 1,510 infections. Compare that with the total number of federal employees in Washington: about 203,000, as of 2013. That means less than 1 percent of federal workers were affected by malware, whatever the source of the virus may be.

There is an effort in Congress to ban porn viewership by federal employees on government-owned devices. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced the Eliminating Pornography from Agencies Act after revelations that some employees downloaded pornographic files to their computers. But since the EnigmaSoftware study relates to personal computers, it does not relate to this bill, said Meadows’s spokeswoman.

The Bottom Line

This combination of a catchy headline and a narrow survey could lead to public misperception about this issue. There is no proof in this study that shows causation between federal employees and porn viewership. The study only looked at four cities, so there is no telling how Washington’s infection rate on federal holidays compares with other cities that do not have a high concentration of federal employees.

As regular readers of The Fact Checker know, we are skeptical of click-bait, bite-size summaries that easily can be shared, and misconstrued, on social media. The nuances of the findings become clearer in the news article, beyond the headline. But it takes some digging to understand what exactly the survey found, and what it means. We challenge the public and the media to dig deeper — especially when it sounds too scandalous to be true.

If politicians repeat this claim in the future, fair warning: it will result in an automatic Four-Pinocchio rating.

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