Web Portals Complement CPAs Serving Small Business
Mongeon, Roger, The CPA Journal
One difficulty shared by accountants and businesspeople in general is the challenge of transferring information securely. Accountants work with sensitive data daily, and need to know how to handle client information in a manner that keeps it secure. In essence, accountants, because of the sensitive financial data they work with, should be at the front of the data privacy compliance line.
Technology has made the paperless office possible, where taxpayers can obtain a copy of their tax return in printed form, in a PDF file copied onto a CD, or in an e- mailed PDF file. The newest approach to sharing sensitive information is to post client information on a website where clients can access information 24 hours a day by securely downloading files through a two- way web portal. The advantage of the web portal download over e-mail is that it does not leave the document floating in cyberspace. It is important, however, that the web download only occur when the client has established a secure Internet connection. Some states have increased their data privacy requirements, affecting the exchange of sensitive data and how infor- mation is shared with clients. Some states also restrict accountants from sending Social Security numbers within e-mail or as e-mail attachments, which is another reason to use web transfer tools and web portals.
Web portals are likely to become a required part of technology infrastructure and services. A good first stage for an accounting firm is to present information on an easyto-use website. The next stage is to use a secure, two-way web portal to receive data from clients for use during the engagement. Over time, the expectation is that clients will rely on the integrity of the secure portal and maintain important documents at that location, the same as they might keep documents in a bank's safe deposit box.
Considerations for Web Portals
If a web portal is designed with a folder structure that resembles the paper world, users will more rapidly adapt to the system. Users prefer to search through documents in a folder and subfolder structure. The closer the paperless tools resemble a paper-based tools environment, the easier they are to use. For example, an individual taxpayer might only have one folder of information that would contain the final tax return of the current and perhaps previous years, and another document with images of the client's source documents. But a corporation might have multiple folders, including secure subfolders for highly confidential information for the CFO or controller, where they could gain access to draft trial balances and other documents. …