Privacy of IM Chats not Guaranteed

Rep. Mark Foley has been brought down not by e-mails, but transcripts of instant message (IM) "chats" his underage correspondents saved. Many people haven't thought much about where their IM messages go, and who can read them.

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Instant messaging or IM has been all over the news lately. Former Congressman Mark Foley used instant messaging to chat with congressional pages. It may seem like a fleeting way to communicate, as if it just disappears when the conversation is over. But as recent events have shown, instant messaging - like any message on a computer, including e-mails - are stored and can be retrieved later.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: The message alert sounds of IM systems are becoming increasingly familiar - from Yahoo! audibles...

(Soundbite of Yahoo! audible)

Unidentified Man: Oh!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Hello.

SYDELL: To AOL's distinct pings...

(Soundbite of AOL ping)

SYDELL: To the varying sounds of MSN's messaging and Google's Talk System...

Mr. FRANCIS DESOUZA (Vice President, Symantec): The number of instant messages is actually expected to surpass the number of e-mails over the next year.

SYDELL: Francis deSouza says that's a worldwide figure. DeSouza is vice president at the technology security company Symantec. According to deSouza, the number of IMs sent per day is close to reaching 10 billion. But when you close out that IM window, that doesn't mean your words have disappeared.

Mr. DESOUZA: In a lot of cases, actually, copies are being kept. They're being kept by the sender or the recipient. They can be kept by, you know, sort of corporate IT departments. And in some cases, copies are kept for some time by the instant messaging network providers themselves.

SYDELL: The policies of the major IM services differ somewhat. However, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google and America Online did not wish to talk to NPR on tape, presumably because of the unfolding scandal surrounding former Congressman Foley.

Foley was using AOL's IM to exchange messages with congressional pages. AOL says they don't keep copies of IM chat, but users can. The same is true of Yahoo! and MSN. Google automatically keeps logs, says Peter Eckersley - staff technician at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Mr. PETER ECKERSLEY (Staff technician, Electronic Frontier Foundation): It actually lets you see your logs on the Google server, and you can select options that let you stop logging or let you delete logging.

SYDELL: Google makes it clear to its customers that it is keeping records of conversations. But the company does allow users to choose to have a completely private chat.

As instant messaging has caught on, it is increasingly being used by businesses for internal conversations. AOL now has a special IM for offices that does monitor and record conversations. They're also companies like MessageLabs, which only design IM systems for business use.

Brian Czarny, the vice president of management there, says many companies want to make sure they know what their employees are saying in case something inappropriate does leak out.

Mr. BRIAN CZARNY (Vice President, MessageLabs): They don't want these things showing up elsewhere and coming back to haunt them. It's very important that a business knows that this exists so that that way they're able to combat it effectively if it does start to show up.

SYDELL: However, there is a reality about both e-mail and IM. Since it's not handwriting, it can easily be changed and manipulated after the fact. So a printout of a log that looks as if it's a communication between say, me and my boss, could've been altered says Edward Felten, a professor of computer science at Princeton University.

Prof. EDWARD FELTEN (Computer Science, Princeton University): The logs that an IM program would keep would normally be regular text files, which anyone could go and edit and put in or take out whatever they wanted afterwards.

SYDELL: The truth is that very few things that take place online are entirely private, says Felten. And instant messaging is no exception.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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How to Keep Your Instant Messaging to Yourself

girl at computer

hide captionInstant-messaging-encryption technology prevents hackers and other intermediaries from reading your conversations.

Helen King/Corbis

I've been using instant messaging to talk with my friends since I was 10. I thought I was pretty savvy, but I had no idea that there were so many intermediaries that could potentially log my conversations. I IM'd with Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to protect digital rights and user privacy. He explained how IM users can make themselves more secure.

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