Instant Messaging:  A place in the workplace?

June 18 2007

Instant messaging (IM) is quickly becoming a key communication tool, possibly equal in importance to email and the telephone. So what is IM? In short, it is a program that allows you to communicate text, video and voice in near real time. It also allows people to transfer files, setup multi-user conferencing and in some cases, initiate remote control sessions.

Many users feel that having IM in the workplace leads to more effective and efficient communications and, therefore, higher productivity. Some believe that it is a huge drain on resources and contributes very little to the bottom line. While it continues to be hotly debated, IM is gaining popularity and the question will soon arrive: should our company use IM?

Maybe IM is a golden ticket to higher profits, happier clients and more productive workers, but before you jump headlong into adding IM to your network, you need to be well versed in the issues.

As with most things Internet- based, IM has security vulnerabilities. IM networks provide the capacity to transfer not only text messages, but also files. Consequently, IM can "instantly" transfer viruses and malware. IM also provides an access point for backdoor Trojan horses. Hackers can use IM to effectively bypass desktop and perimeter firewalls. And, hackers don't need to scan the Internet for unknown victims -- they can just select from an updated directory of "buddy" lists.

All the major IM networks (ICQ, Yahoo, AOL, MSN) support peer-to-peer file sharing where one can share a directory or drive. This means that all the files on a computer can be shared using the IM client, leading to the spread of files that are infected with viruses or other malware. Finally, the information sent through IM may be vulnerable to unauthorized viewing, since most systems are unencrypted and even if encryption is used, hackers can impersonate other users in many different ways.

Securing or preventing the use of IM presents challenges, but isn't impossible. With care and knowledge, IM can serve as a valuable business tool. If you want to explore it applications for your business, give us a call!

Sidenotes:

Gartner analysts recently identified instant messaging as one of the top 11 security issues for 2003, stating that the ubiquity of instant messaging is creating worrisome holes in security.

Highlighting this risk is the rapid growth of instant messaging for both personal and business use. Ferris Research predicts that instant messaging will grow from 54 million unique consumer users in 2002 to 341 million unique consumers in 2007.