Know the IM risks

September 2008 IT infrastructure

IM continues to evolve and company managers are realising that, when used correctly, it can be a powerful customer service tool to boost the bottom line.

Hubert Wentzel, divisional director, EOH Consulting, says the main strength of instant messaging (IM) lies in its immediacy. If IM does not detract from the user's real task and integrates with other business tools, then there is genuine benefit in this important 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 to 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 e-mail, 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 e-mail policies. 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.

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 security 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 have got the necessary network and computer security in place."

For more information contact Hubert Wentzel, EOH Consulting, divisional director, +27 (0)11 607 8100.

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