Companies turn to secure IM to meet privacy concerns

Von Todd R.

With the use of instant messaging on an upswing, companies concerned about security, regulatory and privacy issues are sometimes turning to secure IM solutions that allow only authorized users access to IM -- while stopping others from sending instant messages.

That was the idea behind the deployment of secure IM software in the offices of the Producers Pension and Health Plans of the Screen Actors Guild. Kevin Donnellan, director of enterprise infrastructure services for the Hollywood-based actors union, said the office turned to secure IM last year in a bid to protect the privacy of the movie stars it serves.

"We are very concerned about the internal security with staff and the ability to block IM applications that could be used internally to send information on members," Donnellan said. "Any named star is most likely to be a member of the SAG health plan. Some of these would be fodder for The Globe and all those types of (entertainment industry) newspapers."

The health plan office is using IM Manager from IMlogic Inc. in Waltham, Mass., to provide secure access for about 50 office workers. The agency is also using IM Manager to block IM usage for another 175 workers inside the group who are not authorized for its use, Donnellan said. Authorized workers are using free MSN Messenger clients for IM communications, which is then monitored and protected by IM Manager.

IM Manager supports all public and enterprise IM systems, including AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, IBM Lotus Instant Messaging, Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2003/2005, Jabber and more, allowing companies to use a mix of IM networks, IMlogic said.

Users can still download IM clients onto their desktop PCs, but they won"t be able to run the software unless authorized through IM Manager, Donnellan said. "We didn"t have any way to track that usage before," he said. "Now, we do."

The IM Manager software provides businesses with control and administration of all IM activity by their workers, including dynamic detection and routing of IM use on the network, and prevention of unauthorized IM usage, according to the company. Centralized administration tools allow IT workers to manage all public and enterprise IM traffic, including screen name registration and authentication of employees against the directory server before allowing access to IM.

Tools are also provided for message logging and archiving and for policy enforcement to provide control at the deepest layer of the network, including content filtering and blocking and file-transfer controls, IMlogic said. The application also includes antivirus scanning and advanced spam detection and blocking and is integrated with IMlogic"s online Threat Center, which provides real-time updates and support.

Michael Miller, director of support services at Media General Inc., a Richmond, Va.-based media company that owns television stations and newspapers, said he brought in IM Manager for about 130 users of the company"s interactive division to maintain security and shut out computer viruses that can come through attachments.

"Before the interactive division was formed, there was a big chunk of people using (IM)," Miller said. Now, only the 130 authorized users at the company have access to instant messaging, out of about 8,000 workers companywide. Media General IM users run America Online Inc."s free client.

Lawrence Orans, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said IM technology from IMlogic and major competitors such as Akonix Systems Inc. and FaceTime Communications Inc. increases security because they allow businesses to set policies on permitted IM usage.

"A lot of companies aren"t savvy to the risks of IM, or they know the risks and they"re looking the other way," Orans said.

While some companies do little to monitor their employees" IM use, the potential for viruses and network attacks will make it more important that they pay attention to potential problems, he said. "It will increasingly become risky to look the other way," Orans said.

Another analyst, Robert Mahowald at IDC in Framingham, Mass., warned that there are still pitfalls to instant messaging, even with the use of secure applications.

The problem, he said, is that when users of secure IM communicate with other users outside the network, there is still the potential for viruses and other attacks to get through.

"You"ve significantly increased your chances of blocking (viruses and other problems) by having a secure IM solution in place," Mahowald said. "But it doesn"t completely solve the problem."