I use AIM quite a bit to talk to my family and friends, but lately, I’ve been worrying more and more about my privacy. Are my instant message conversations kept private or am I putting myself at risk? Please explain!

Oh, I’m so glad you asked! I know a lot of WorldStart’s readers use AIM (AOL’s instant messaging program) and some of you may even use other IM programs, such as Yahoo! or ICQ, as well. All of those programs are free of charge, which groups them all into the same category. The topic of privacy when using chat programs was never really an issue until recently, which is why I’m so glad you brought this up. It’s something I probably should have covered a long time ago, but hopefully I’ll make up for lost time today. Let’s check this one out!

For the most part today, I’m going to focus on AIM, because it’s more widely used and well known. Awhile back, this statement was discovered in AOL’s terms of service: “AOL has the right to read, and even publish publicly, your private IM conversations.” It then goes on to say, “You waive any right to privacy.” So, what does all that mean exactly? Well, it basically means that when you decide to use the AIM chat program, AOL has the right to use any of your conversations as they see fit at any time. That’s a bit scary, don’t you think?!

Now, whether or not AOL publishes your conversation obviously depends on the content of your discussion. If you’re just chatting with a friend about what time you’re going to go to the movies on Saturday night, they’re not going to make that public knowledge. Or, if you’re just talking to your daughter about what you’re going to get your grandson for his birthday, they’re not going to share that information with the world. On the other hand, if you’re using AIM for business purposes, that could be a whole different story.

If you’re using AIM to discuss private business matters, AOL could easily publish your conversation for the entire online world to see. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that could put you and your company at great risk. So, if you’re ever going to discuss something you don’t want anyone else to know about, don’t use a free instant messaging program like AIM. For that kind of thing, you’ll want to use a secure business class IM solution or simply use your company e-mail account. That way, you won’t take the chance of your private information being leaked out all over the Web.

Yes, all of this does seem a bit unfair, but AOL has to do what they have to do. They’re allowed to create their own privacy policy with their own terms, so you should always keep that in mind and abide by it. You need to take the right steps to keep yourself safe as well. This is just something to think about. I hope I’ve opened your eyes to a whole new side of the IM community. Take it for what it’s worth!

~ Erin