Instant Messages, Lingering Paper Trail

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

People who think their instant messages disappear after being sent should think again.

As the recent scandals involving former Republican congressman Mark Foley and Hewlett-Packard Co. have brought to light, text messages sent in real time via computer can be saved and retrieved.

Instant messaging has been growing in popularity, with nearly 79 million users of instant-messaging programs in the United States during August, according to research firm Nielsen-NetRatings. The most popular instant-message programs are from AOL, Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. and can be used on computers and mobile gadgets such as cellphones and BlackBerrys.

Many people who take advantage of these free software services believe their conversations can't be tracked, but that's a misconception, said Michael Hall, managing editor of the Web site Instant Messaging Planet.

"Even the most basic instant-messaging software will keep some sort of archive," he said. "In the Foley case, I noticed there was a lot of carrying on in the right-wing blogosphere about the fact that these messages were recorded, [but] it's not odd. . . . Over the Net, you're never given any guarantees of real privacy."

Instant messages can be saved in a variety of ways. Most popular IM programs have built-in archiving features that can be turned on by anyone who uses them. Also, many companies and government agencies use special software that scans text-messaging traffic and makes copies of the text for storage on corporate or government computers.

It is not clear which IM program was used to save and retrieve Foley's sexually explicit chats with congressional pages. But Hall said he inspected screen shots of Foley's messages online and they appeared to have been captured using the standard archiving feature built into AOL's AIM software. AOL also has a business version of its messaging software, called AIM Pro, that archives messages on a user's hard drive by default.

Standard instant-message programs from AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft do not automatically save such IM chats, though users can, with a few clicks, set their messaging software to save personal copies of IM conversations on the hard drives of their computers.

Those programs do not store copies of the text messages on the computers of the user's Internet service provider, which makes them different from most e-mail services. Typically, e-mail messages are stored on the computer of the user's Internet access provider, such as EarthLink Inc. or Comcast Corp.

There is one major exception: Google Inc.'s instant-messaging service, called Google Talk, saves archives of chats on its servers by default, so that users can log on later and pull up old conversations. This is a feature that can be turned off by users.

Just over a third of employees use IM programs at work, according to research by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute.

Half of those employees use free programs such as AIM; the others use programs provided by their employers.

As instant messaging has caught on in workplaces, corporate technology departments are scrambling to make sure the technology isn't used for nefarious or compromising purposes. Increasingly, companies are buying special software to monitor and archive IM chats.

San Diego-based Akonix Systems Inc., for example, monitors the IM conversations of more than a million employees at more than 700 companies.

Akonix chief executive Peter Shaw said uptake for his company's monitoring product has been slower than IM adoption rates among employees.

But the recent attention provided by the Foley and HP scandals hasn't hurt. "Hits at our Web page have skyrocketed the last few days," he said.

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