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Know the risks before adopting instant messaging

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Hubert Wentzel, divisional director at EOH Consulting, says the main
strength of Instant Messaging (IM) lies in its immediacy. If IM does not
detract from the users' real task, he says, and integrates with other
business tools, then there is genuine benefit in this important,
cutting-edge technology.

According to IDC, there will be more than 506 million people using IM by the
end of 2008. As it has since the Internet's earliest days, IM continues to
evolve and company managers are realising that, when used correctly, it can
be a powerful customer service tool and boost the bottom line. And, with an
increasing number of people choosing to work from home, IM will play an even
more important role in the future.
Gartner research recently indicated that collaboration capabilities
available to businesses will change fundamentally during the next five to 10
years. Rather than having one application where you do your work and another
separate application where you collaborate with others about your work, the
two purposes will flow together seamlessly.
The application will offer collaboration when appropriate, guiding the user
to contact the right person at the correct time.
Wentzel says it is important for SMEs to consider emerging technologies,
like IM, to see how these can be applied appropriately to cut costs and
improve bottom-line growth. "As an effective alternative to spam- and
virus-ridden email, IM is helping more and more businesses communicate
cost-effectively and efficiently. This snappy technology does not, however,
come without risks."
While IM has escalated amongst business users, IT security departments are
still coming to grips with the threats it brings. The file sharing
capabilities within IM make it easy for users to bypass traditional security
measures and email policies, Wentzel says.
"Major advancements over the past few years have enabled instant messaging
users to run computer scripts, play online games and initiate web
conferences. This added functionality has opened security holes which leave
companies vulnerable to spam."
The best defence in this regard is education, Wentzel says. "As with any
Internet-based technology, users need to be educated about the security
issues involved with instant messaging.
"Yes, spam is a security threat, but not because of viruses, but because of
people. It is a human tendency to open links and attachments from unknown
senders, which underlines the fact that people are the weakest link in any
technology solution."
Indications are that the real threat for the future of IM is worms, which
are non-discriminate and target all computer systems of a particular
network. The number of worms for instant messaging is increasing each month,
and looking at the success of some of these worms, clearly instant messaging
is an up and coming platform for malicious threats.
So, while IM holds great potential as a business tool, it is often abused by
employees and poses significant liability and security risks. Wentzel says
that it is the onus of each individual business to ensure there are written
policies in place regarding IM use on their network.
"Used properly, instant messaging can be an extremely useful addition to a
company's communications tools. Instant messaging reduces time and effort
and helps a business react quickly to new challenges, competition and
customer requests. Before signing up for an instant messaging service,
however, ensure that you've got the necessary network and computer security
in place."