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SurfControl unveils IM filtering tool

The Web filtering company debuts new technology that helps companies block instant messaging--an application beloved by employees but a headache for some IT managers.

Web filtering company SurfControl has introduced new technology that helps companies block instant messaging--an application beloved by employees but a headache for some information technology managers.

The San Francisco, Calif.-based company on Monday launched SurfControl Instant Message Filter, which lets companies thwart staff from installing and using IM applications from companies such as AOL Time Warner, Yahoo and MSN. In addition, the tool stops employees from using peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa, which can be technologically cumbersome to corporate networks.

"The problem is that these tools pose significant risks to corporations, including security risks and losses to productivity and network bandwidth," said Jim Murphy, product marketing manager of SurfControl.

"Most of our customers have asked us for a tool that lets them block IM or peer-to-peer applications because they have been brought into the organization without approval and planning, and IT managers need to control the security risks."

Instant messaging has become so popular that it's practically replaced the watercooler for office chitchat among co-workers. IM is rapidly infiltrating the workplace, with about 80 percent of U.S. companies having adopted it, according to research firm Osterman Research. And traffic from instant chat is expected to soar by 130 percent next year to 4.3 million messages each day, according to researcher IDC. Still, most IM use in the workplace is without the knowledge or consent of IT administrators, Osterman said.

As a result, companies have already started to ban IM at work--a trend that has become both a threat and an opportunity for IM providers. On one hand, service providers risk losing customers through corporations shutting down IM services and turning to other software vendors that will comply with their demands for better security. At the same time, the big three Internet companies are jumping on the opportunity to sell versions of their IM services--which are traditionally free--to the corporate market.

Yahoo recently started a campaign called "Save Smiley," in reference to Yahoo Instant Messenger's smiley-face icons, asking customers to inform Yahoo if a company has blocked IM in the workplace. The Web giant plans to then approach these companies and try to sell its corporate IM service to their information technology departments.

As of January, AOL Time Warner's AOL unit had 62 million IM users, MSN had 20 million, and Yahoo had 18 million, according to subscriber tracker ComScore Media Metrix.

SurfControl's Murphy said that his company's filtering tool bolsters corporate security on a number of fronts. Companies face legal liability when or if employees use IM to leak confidential information about business dealings, for example. In addition, many virus-infected files can be imported through IM or file-swapping applications, he said.

The filtering technology allows companies to pick a specific public IM or file-sharing application to block from the server; it can also let companies select groups of employees who can continue use of such applications. IM Filter, which was launched at the RSA e-security trade show in San Francisco, will be available mid-May.