Should IM be banned at work?

Fran Foo: Some companies are trying to take charge of their business flow of communications by putting a ban on commercial instant messaging systems for "security" purposes.

In a recent chat, a friend who is with a major mobile phone company said that Yahoo Instant Messenger had been banned from office desktops for "security" purposes. I found this ironic for a company that prides itself on connecting people.

Management, he said, was moving to stem the outflow of information -- confidential or otherwise -- and prevent any form of industrial espionage.

Too dramatic?

Organisations in the financial and legal sphere prohibit instant messaging (IM) at the workplace for obvious reasons. But now other companies have also moved to protect trade secrets from leaking out. The WPP Group is one example.

One of the world's leading communications services groups, which owns advertising, direct marketing and public relations agencies such as Dentsu, Young & Rubicam, Wunderman and Ogilvy PR, WPP is currently implementing strict controls at its worldwide locations.

In complying with new, post-Enron regulations from the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the Group has moved to curb the use of several technologies -- including instant messaging. Employees have been told the lack of proper documentation or audit trails to "track" conversations between internal and external parties on IM programs also pose a threat to the company and its clients.

Some quarters also contend that there are other reasons to block IM. One antivirus expert said that instant messaging "just opens another hole" because users aren't trained on the dos and don'ts of using it. "Does email make systems less secure? Yes. What about instant messaging? Yes, but you can live without it," Computer Associates' antivirus head Eugene Dozortsev said.

He told my colleague Patrick Gray that any employee who has access to the corporate network should have at least two to three hours of security-specific training. Dozortsev argued that while IM has crept into corporate environments like any other tool, it has resulted in providing attackers, worms and viruses with another way in as well.

There are wider implications if instant messaging is banned. Companies like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, PeopleSoft and Yahoo -- which are scrambling for a piece of the enterprise messaging pie -- could be deprived of a new and lucrative revenue stream.