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Preventing an instant mess

May 31, 20042 mins
Messaging AppsUnified Communications

Free software that encrypts your IM communication

For those who’ve come to rely on it, instant messaging makes e-mail look old and creaky.

You’ve probably sent off important e-mail messages when time was tight. You sat and hoped your intended recipient was at the keyboard and in the mood to respond. You repeatedly clicked Send/Receive, muttering “Hurry up!” all the while.

The trouble is, most IM software is vulnerable. Using easily downloaded “sniffer” tools, anybody can eavesdrop on unencrypted IM conversations. Major software vendors are now selling enterprise-grade IM applications that rigorously secure and archive IM communication. Business-class IM software blocks access to peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, encrypts messages in transit and saves a copy of all IM traffic.

AOL, Microsoft or Yahoo all offer encryption on their corporate-class IM software, but the vast majority of small-business people use the entry-level freebie versions. The good news is there are a couple of free tools that let you encrypt your IM traffic.

A company called AIM Encrypt offers a free encryption certificate for users of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). If you use AIM and you’re cheap like me, this certificate is an option worth considering. It only encrypts IMs if both parties have the certification – but then, that’s true of any encryption.

Zone Labs recently released an upgrade of IMsecure, the company’s IM-encryption application that’s aimed at home users and small businesses. IMsecure works with IM from any of the three major services mentioned above, and other smaller players as well, including GAIM (the multiprotocol IM client for Linux, BSD, MacOS X, and Windows) and Cerulean Studios’ Trillian. The free personal version covers only one computer, but so what? Have everybody on your Buddy List install it. 

Keep in mind that IMsecure has inherent limitations. Both sender and recipient must install it, for starters. And the software encrypts messages only during transmission, so it won’t protect your information if a hacker has planted keystroke-logging software in your PC. Finally, it won’t slow the influx of “spim,” the bastard offspring of spam and IM.

The Pro version, which costs $149.95 per year for 10 users, adds several nice features, in particular a spim-blocker and a security log, but it might be overkill for some small businesses.