What Does Your I.M. Software Know About You?

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News and Notes tech contributor Mario Armstrong talks about instant-messaging software and what it could be hiding from you on your own computer.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

You may want to think twice about what you type next time you spill your guts over the Internet. Sure, e-mails can be saved, but what you write in an instant message can also be archived and you may not even know where.

Our tech contributor Mario Armstrong joins me now to track down just where our thoughts go after we send them into the Internet void. Hi, Mario.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Hey, Farai, how are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So I've got an instant message account, but if I click out of a discussion window it's gone, right?

ARMSTRONG: No. Unfortunately, that's not totally the case. That's what you may think and that's what the big misconception here is. And I wouldn't be surprised of the close to 80 million users of instant messaging systems may think some of the same things.

By and large, I mean at the end of the day, Farai, what happens is you're typing your message into an instant message window, which looks like a chat window. And for those that haven't seen instant messaging, this is a way of having two-way communication almost instantaneous. Different from e-mail where you send a message and then wait for someone to reply, you can actually watch in one window a full conversation happening between one-to-one and one-to-many going on at one time.

So when that happens, Farai, either myself as the sender could choose to save that conversation, you as a the receiver could chose to save that conversation, the Internet service providers in between our connection could in fact if they wanted to - most do not - but could in fact if they wanted to save that conversation.

So along the way here there are a lot of ways for these conversations to not just be gone as you type, they're actually being stored.

CHIDEYA: You know, I can't help but think of congressman or former Congressman Mark Foley. It was his really pretty raw and raunchy IM conversations with a teenager that started this whole ball rolling, that is a political controversy that keeps going on and on.

I know ABC News got those transcripts. I don't know who they got them from. But I guess it's a clear example of what you're talking about.

ARMSTRONG: It is a clear example of what I'm talking about. And what's different about this is it wasn't like someone snooped in - from what I understand at this point - into Foley's computer. Now that may have happened, but I haven't seen that come out as of yet. What I have heard is that the pages, these underage teenagers essentially were keeping logs of these conversations. Not for any malice, because some of these conversations go back it seems quite some time.

But nonetheless you're able to access those logs. Now by default some of the more popular instant messaging systems - AOL, Yahoo, MSN Messenger - some of them you have to check your preferences. Some of them will by default keep your instant message chats logged for you in a folder that's on your desktop computer that can be easily searched, and it's just merely a text file. And some of those by default automatically uncheck that box for you.

So first and foremost, I would check your settings. But, yeah, I think in this case it was one of those things where you didn't have to be a cyber sleuth or a hacker in order to kind of reveal this information, and I think that's what got him in trouble.

CHIDEYA: So if you're someone who's automatically, you know, even unbeknownst to you, keeping records of these chats, how do you undo that?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. So you need to go into the settings of your instant message provider. For instance - I'm an AOL user of the instant messaging system - in there, if I go to the edit menu I can change my preferences, change the options to uncheck the box of automatically archiving my instant messaging conversations.

And it should also be noted that, you know, not only just text messages can be archived; web addresses, photos, audio, anything that's basically brought into the message window could in fact to some degree be saved and archived and pulled up at a later date.

CHIDEYA: So you mentioned that the sender, the recipient and the Internet service provider could all check in. But are there any other ways that people can check on what you're instant messaging?

ARMSTRONG: Okay. Yes, so there are some other ways that you should be worried about your activities on the computer. For one, there's a term out there that's called key loggers. And that seems kind of obvious. Right off the bat it's like, you know, what does a key logger do? It records every key, basically, that you type on your keyboard.

It's pretty stealth software. So if I install this, say, on my spouse's laptop, who I may be afraid that she's trying to leave me or something like that and I want to see what she's up to, I can install this key logger software which not only tracks every key that she would press on the computer but I could also have it e-mail me screenshots, Farai, of what she's actually doing on the computer. Whether it's e-mail, visiting a Web site or just typing a word document.

CHIDEYA: Wow, that's some scary stuff right there.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. It kind of makes things real. You know, I mean keystroke logging has been kind of used in software development for some time as a diagnostic tool. But now it's being more used for some of these nefarious ways. And in some cases, women I know are using them and advocate using them if they feel like they're being cyber-stalked.

So there are some positive reasons for why you would want these key loggers. But by and large most often than not it's not a good sign. If you find that you have the key logger software on your computer and you didn't put it there, that's a bad sign.

CHIDEYA: So now this is going to show up in R&B songs. She key logged me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARMSTRONG: Everything else does. I don't see why this wouldn't.

CHIDEYA: Okay. Anything else that you can recommend folks check out?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. The only other thing I could say is if you really are into instant messaging or are just at this point just petrified to do anything on the computer, you may want to look into software that gives you a little bit of safety or some privacy. I wouldn't allude that any software is a silver bullet. But maybe something that's more encrypted.

For instance, if you want to use an instant messaging program, I would look at a Web site called BitWiseIM - BitWise, it's all one word, IM.com. They have an encrypted instant messaging application. There's another one called IGoIncognito. And they also encrypt messages for e-mail as well and instant messaging.

So if you want to do this and you want to be a little bit safe and put a couple of layers there, look at something that's encrypted.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Mario Armstrong is NEWS & NOTES tech contributor. He also covers technology for Baltimore-area NPR member stations WYPR and WEAA.

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