Instant Messages Can Mean Instant Trouble for Employees

Oct. 4, 2006 — -- Long the ignored relative of e-mail, instant messaging has suddenly found itself thrust into the limelight in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal.

"Most people believe that what they type on IM simply disappears into cyberspace," said Angela Gunn, who is the online-security editor at Computerworld. "The fact of the matter is that what takes an instant to type can last a lifetime on the Internet."

Last year an average of 13.9 billion instant messages were sent each day, according to a study by computer-industry analysts at the Radicati Group. These can come back to haunt their creators in four main ways.

First, IM programs give those doing the messaging the option of saving the entire dialogue. The forwarding of these messages to friends opens another potential leak, as do attacks by hackers. Finally, companies have the ability to install software that records all computer traffic on their networks.

While the Foley case serves as a powerful reminder to parents to monitor their children's online activity, equally huge reverberations are sure to be felt within the workplace. If you have ever typed something on a work computer that you perhaps shouldn't have, there is every possibility that more than your intended audience viewed it.

"Nobody using a computer to interact with another person should ever assume that the conversation is secure," Gunn told ABC News.

Instant messaging is considered a quicker and more direct form of e-mail. Two or more people can type messages to each other on a computer that when sent, appear instantly on their respective screens. In the words of Gunn, "It's really not difficult."

The ease of sending instant messages combined with the ease of logging them creates huge privacy rights issues. About 2 percent of employers have fired employees for remarks they made over IM, according to a survey by the ePolicy Institute and American Management Association.

While these figures pale in comparison to the 26 percent of employers who have fired employees due to infractions over e-mail, the influence of IM monitoring is growing year by year.

"Online interaction, and instant messaging in particular, is one of the most quickly evolving areas of the law, not least regarding what reasonable expectations of privacy employees have in the workplace," said Douglas N. Silverstein, a partner in the law offices of Kesluk and Silverstein.

The problem faced by those caught in the IM storm is that they are breaking new legal ground. Many companies have Internet guidelines, but whether or not employers have a right to monitor exactly what employees discuss on company time and on company property remains a central question.

"These social issues are ahead of the legal curve and ahead of the legal precedent," said Silverstein, whose office specializes in labor employment law. "They are evolving on a daily basis and the law needs to catch up with the realities of a modern workplace."

Companies can use port blocking software to disable IM services, or install their own business-specific packages that give employees a clearer indication that what they say may be recorded.

But with the unpopularity of blocking software, and with the preference for AOL and Microsoft IM services over their stand-alone counterparts, it would appear employers and their employees are to remain on an increasingly ugly instant messaging collision course.