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Saturday, August 28, 2004  
IMing too

Technology: Employers may block public IMs

I recently wrote about why, after years on the Internet, I am no longer much of a user of instant messaging. I've discovered I function better without interruptions.

If responding in comments to something I've said or emailing me is not fast enough, I wonder why. I don't miss the immediacy and like being able to adhere to other things I'm working on instead of answering the online equivalent of the phone.

In the interest of fairness, I also considered why some IM users love real time Internet conversations, citing ZDNet's Anchordesk columnist Brian Cooley.

Cooley's main reason for liking instant messaging is disliking email.

But today e-mail is choked with garbage, and I think that's the best reason for IM. I run two spam filters just to get down to 300 spam messages in my in-box each day. People I need to reach aren't responsive to e-mail anymore; they seem to check it every few hours or so, probably dreading the onslaught of spam and tedious threads that await them.

IM restores that rapid-fire pungency e-mail used to have, an electronic version of someone sticking their head in your office door.

It turns out that employers are more concerned about instant messaging than I am. According to Infoworld, the practice may be on its way out of American workplaces. The magazine covered the topic this week.

There is no question that IM is entrenched in the enterprise. More than 90 percent of businesses report IM activity, according to Osterman Research. A main reason, as we discovered in " Getting serious about enterprise IM ," is the improved productivity and reduced communications costs that IM delivers. What should concern CIOs is that unsanctioned consumer IM networks -- such as those from America Online, ICQ, Microsoft, and Yahoo -- make up 80 percent of corporate IM use today, and the number of users of these unsecured IM networks is growing at a fast clip, according to The Radicati Group. True, public IM networks offer enterprises some protection, such as very basic identity control. But organizations are still exposed to a multitude of security risks, including viruses and breached firewalls.

Instant messaging is of great concern to employers, especially corporations, because of the security risks inherent in it and contractual obligations that require secure wide area networks. The baseline protection against unauthorized entry -- firewalls -- is insufficent because sophisticated IM programs can easily detect and tunnel under them. IM programs can also evade virus protections.

Infoworld recommends using software designed to limit IMing to approved uses as a solution.

The answer -- employed by all three security products reviewed here -- is a gateway specifically tuned to detect IM and p-to-p use. From there, these solutions enforce the access policies you set. For example, you could permit MSN text messaging but not file transfers.

However, an equally viable reaction is to curtail use of public internet messaging by making it verboten in workplaces. I expect many employers will do that instead of investing in software that may not produce the needed results. It appears workplace Internet messaging is headed in the same direction as sending and receiving personal email in workplaces. Employees may not be able to do it much longer.

11:29 AM