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Get Ready for Spim

Instant Messaging applications face new vulnerabilities

When an Internet user in California recently received a contrived Instant Messenger message that Osama bin Laden had been captured, it contained a link that apparently led to a breaking news report, but instead brought him to a site offering a game to download. Had he taken the bait, as others did, he would have inadvertently installed spy software that would track his Web habits, barrage him with pop-up ads, and trigger a virus to resend the invitation to everyone on his buddy list.

Since the message "came from someone I personally knew," he says, "I clicked on the link right away" but didn't download the game. Such reflexes are exploited in new schemes that send spam as IM-borne messages called "spim." The crackdown on spam e-mail by lawmakers pushed spammers to try new delivery methods, and instant messages are the latest targets.

Spim will triple to more than 1.2 billion messages this year.

Spim brings new risks to the Internet through unleashing viruses, creating back doors into computer systems that can be accessed at a later time, and transmitting links to pornography. But as districts already struggle with escalating levels of e-mail spam, ironically, this new online threat is growing even faster. Spim is expected to triple from 400 million messages in 2003 to more than 1.2 billion messages this year, says Sara Radicati, president of the technology market research firm The Radicati Group.

IM in Schools

IM is fast becoming one of the most popular online communications applications through free Internet-linked services including AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and closed local networks such as WiredRed. Surveys show that among online users, almost three-quarters of teenagers use IM, and half of all adults have tried the services.

IM technologies in schools allow users to have live text-based chats among students, teachers, administrators and parents for instructional as well as informational purposes. Records of conversations can be filed and printed, such as reports on meetings, and handheld devices including cell phones and PDAs can link users on school trips and at sports events. Furthermore, most of the services also transmit voice and video for multimedia communications. I use IM almost daily for planned and chance conversations, and for group discussions without paying for conference calls.

While some school districts have overreacted to the risks by banning the use of instant messages outright, such shortsighted views close down the potential to explore exciting new applications for the powerful technology. For example, the Fordyce Public Schools in Arkansas integrated IM into the district Web site so users can communicate instantaneously with their technology and maintenance departments. Similarly, the employees in Missouri's Kirksville School District are all linked through instant messaging, and they claim the use has dramatically increased communications efficiency among principals, teachers and staff. In addition, the independent Benjamin School in North Palm Beach Florida uses instant messaging in place of a traditional P.A. system to send information to staff members without interfering in the learning process.

Addressing Weaknesses

Unfortunately, spim will continue to grow, so districts need to adopt defensive measures for school and personal IM applications. Guarding screen names, never clicking directly on included links and blocking incoming messages from unknown senders are examples. New anti-spim software products are also starting to reach the market, and as each major service provider creates IM software to better catch spim, it is essential to update to new versions. However, all Internet content we read, send or receive carries risks, so that should not deter us from moving forward with new technologies. Your staff needs to be informed about the potential as well as the vulnerabilities of instant messaging.

Web Resources

AOL Instant Messenger

Ferris Research

Fordyce Public Schools

MSN Messenger

The Radicati Group

Yahoo Messenger

Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.