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New technology allows financial institutions to track and store instant messages sent between employees and clients.

Instant messaging (IM) isn't just for kids anymore. But in the financial services workplace, the emerging Internet communications medium can't be treated as a toy.

Unlike an e-mail, which can sit unread in someone's in-box for days, instant messages are immediately displayed on the receiver's screen. The other distinguishing factor is "presence detection," which means that messages can only be sent to people who are online at the time.

These factors make the technology ideal for sending a text message from one person's keyboard directly to another person's monitor. People in the securities business have picked up on this trend and run with it. "From what we've been able to tell, traders have been doing instant messaging on their own," said Glen Vondrick, CEO of FaceTime Communications, based in Foster City, Calif. "No one knows precisely what they're saying and what they're doing."

But under SEC guidelines, electronic communications between brokers and their customers have to be recorded for auditing and compliance purposes. While these requirements have already been implemented for telephone calls, e-mail and correspondence, so far IM has managed to slide under the radar.

FaceTime's IM Auditor application helps to solve the problem by setting up a "proxy server" that prevents users on the network from accessing the major instant messaging networks (AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo) without first going through the server. That allows a company to keep a record of all incoming and outgoing messages, screen for selected keywords and maintain an archive for whatever length of time deemed necessary.

This solution allows companies to harness, rather than to forbid outright, an activity with potential benefits to the enterprise. "It's not that people are using the instant messengers because they're trying to get around the regulations," said Vondrick. "They're using instant messaging because of the nature and the type of communication tool that it is."

FaceTime is unique in that it has a contractual relationship with AOL, the dominant player in the IM market, to access their servers and audit IM conversations of its clients. "We've had that in place for a couple of years now," said Vondrick. "We got it early on because we were one of the pioneers in this world and before everybody knew what instant messaging was all about."

The other major IM networks, Microsoft and Yahoo, publish their messaging protocols, making it easier for FaceTime to capture that message flow as well.

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