Are IM and Spyware Inevitable Partners?

Longtime readers of this column know my feelings about the various Instant Messaging (IM) programs that have proliferated throughout the Internet over the past few years. In general, I haven't been enthusiastic about using these tools, but more and more my clients ask me for an AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) or Yahoo! or MSN Messenger IM ID so that they can pop in with questions about projects or planning.

Of course, living in a household with kids, I know that IM is a de facto part of the childhood experience these days. Despite the availability of telephones (both cellular and plain old telephone service--POTS), kids seem to feel that they need to talk to their friends with messaging. I use Cerulean Studios' Trillian IM client because I don't want to have to install multiple applications to use IM features. Trillian's Pro version has worked well for me since its release. (Trillian also offers a free basic version of its IM client, available at http://www.trillian.cc.) Trillian lets me connect to AIM, MSN, and Yahoo! and access the IM features that these services offer without requiring me to use their dedicated clients, which makes using the services more bearable for me. I can categorize correspondents by task and type (e.g., business or personal) across various services without regard to which service each user is on.

Recently, I discovered another good reason to use Trillian instead of other IM clients. My kids upgraded their computer to AIM 5.5, the latest version of the IM client. In my weekly security scan of this computer, I discovered that AIM 5.5 installs a lot of stuff, including WildTangent monitoring software, so that AOL can track how its members use the games that AIM now includes.

The WildTangent software sets off my spyware scanner (I use Lavasoft's free Ad-aware program, available from http://www.lavasoftusa.com ). Although WildTangent doesn't collect personal data about users, I have a firm policy of killing spyware on the computers on my combination home-office network. The bigger problem here is that many businesses use AIM to provide quick connectivity between their internal and external users. Does any business want external software on its network that tracks employee behavior? You can kill WildTangent and still use AIM (although doing so is technically in violation of the AIM user agreement). However, the point is that the WildTangent software is automatically installed--you can't prevent the installation. If you use AIM in your business, you now have one more thing to worry about.

If you're a hardcore IM user, I suggest that you consider using Trillian as your basic IM client. And make sure you run spyware-checking tools on your computer after any upgrade, or simply as part of your general computer maintenance and hygiene routine. A Google search will return many free products worthy of your consideration.

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