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2/10/2009
08:24 PM
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The Secret To Secure Instant Messaging

Think there is no such thing as secure instant messaging? I have some very good news for you.

Think there is no such thing as secure instant messaging? I have some very good news for you.Instant messaging technology has long been an important business communications tool. As a rule, however, it is also one of the least secure. Many IM networks are completely open and unencrypted; if an attacker can intercept your IM traffic, he can also read it.

Some IM providers, such as Yahoo, offer built-in encryption. Most providers, however, including Yahoo, store IM transcripts on their servers -- sometimes temporarily, other times permanently. As a result, companies that use IM as an impromptu form of risk management may be in for a rude surprise when a subpoena turns up embarrassing (and possibly actionable) chat transcripts.

A tech blogger who goes by the handle "Tech Czar" recently posted some helpful tips on dealing with this issue. Specifically, he recommends using a pair of so-called multi-chat IM clients: Adium for OS X users, and Pidgin for Windows and Linux users.

These clients, both of which are no-cost, open-source software, allow users to chat across multiple networks, using multiple accounts if they choose. What really matters here, however, is the fact that both clients support off-the-record (OTR) messaging: So lets go over what OTR offers you, authentication, super strong encryption (256-bit AES) and a way to authenticate people. Now, the encryption basically works in the background . . . it uses the best by default. For this to work, two people must both be using OTR compliant programs. So, you can have a person using Adium and another using Pidgin on two different operating systems. It does not matter at all. As Tech Czar points out, this OTR tool is completely different from the OTR feature Google offers its IM users. This form of OTR ensures that no one except the message recipient can decrypt your conversations, even if they are intercepted and archived on an IM provider's servers.

Also note that users on both ends of an IM conversation must use OTR-compliant clients in order to make this work. This can complicate matters a bit at times, but it's not an issue if you're using it to communicate with business partners or employees who choose (or who are required) to participate.

Many IM conversations, including business conversations, are harmless and even inane; it doesn't matter who sees them, because they don't convey truly important information. When security matters, however, using an IM client that supports OTR can make a very important difference.

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