How to Fight IM Threats

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No matter how much warning an IT manager gives employees, less-sophisticated end-users sometimes will end up seduced by spam that offers stock tips or cheap medicine and learn a very valuable, possibly embarrassing, lesson.

But not every answer to Web-based threats is as clear-cut as abstaining from unfamiliar e-mails — some of the more malicious threats happen when you least expect it: through instant messaging (IM), even with a friend or co-worker.

Instant messaging is an easy way to communicate effectively in an office setting, but many don’t realize that even if you’re sending an IM to someone 10 feet away, your system is just as vulnerable as if you were talking to someone from China — most IM platforms have some built-in security, but hackers work constantly to stay one step ahead of them.

There are two kinds of IM threats: inbound and outbound. The former are those that are sent to you. They can be overt, but sometimes they occur without your even seeing what happened.

The viruses, worms, bombs and spyware sent to your system, at the very least, slow down productivity, and at the worst, they bring your system to a crashing halt.

Outbound threats are leaks of vital information from your computer that are sent to the wrong hands. For instance, a keystroke-logger program can save every keystroke you enter on your system and record the Web sites you go to, usernames, passwords, etc.

Recently, the FBI has used keystoke logging to track criminals and terrorists, but when it’s used against an end-user, the results could be catastrophic.

Organizations that take such threats seriously employ a third-party IM security program, either through their regular security provider or a single one devoted to IM threats.

The Screen Actors Guild – Producers Pension and Health Plans (SAGPH) is one of the latter, and since August 2004, it has used Symantec IM Manager, a program used to manage, secure, log and archive corporate instant-messaging traffic.

“We realized we needed to protect ourselves from malicious code and threats targeting this new mode of communication,” said Kevin Donnellan, assistant chief information officer. “SAGPH is a not-for-profit organization and seeks to return as much as possible to its members by operating at peak efficiency.”

IM allows Donnellan’s employees to work and process more than 700,000 pension and health claims a year much more efficiently. A common answer to IM security threats has been to ban them, but Donnellan said he knew that wouldn’t be a popular or productive solution at SAGPH.

“IM allows our staff to save time while improving customer service and providing real-time information to colleagues who may have a question on a claim or need information to respond to a customer request in a timely manner,” Donnellan said. “With the security IM Manager provides, there is really no reason for us to limit our staff’s IM use.

“The ability to define, per user profile, which IM clients are allowed and whether they can communicate internally or externally allows us the great deal of flexibility in our IM policy we need to achieve our goals.”

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