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Chat and IM programs allow communication to people all over the internet. They often also include file transfer ability, and that can pose a risk.

My 14year-old daughter wants to install an MSN chat program on my computer. Does this pose an additional risk for viruses and/or crashes to my computer? I need my computer for work and can't afford any of those problems.

Yes and no.

In the proper hands, with the requisite amount of common sense and awareness a chat program need be no more dangerous than any other program you install. But naturally in the wrong hands it does open some additional windows of malicious opportunity.

I guess it kind of boils down to this: how much do you trust your daughter to be safe?

The biggest additional risk that IM and Chat programs bring with them is that they typically include the ability to transfer files. So let's say you're chatting with someone and they want to send you a picture. Rather than having to use some other means, like perhaps email, to transfer the image, they just send it to you - right then and there - using the chat program.

"The risk boils down to exactly the same risk as you might expect from emailed attachments ..."

It's pretty handy.

If, in fact, it's an image.

The risk boils down to exactly the same risk as you might expect from emailed attachments: any time you accept a file from someone and you're not positive that the file is what it claims to be, you run the risk that it's a virus or other form of malware.

So, depending on who your daughter is chatting with, depending on her own awareness when it comes to internet security, and depending a little on the other security aspects you might or might not have set up on your computer, it could be a huge risk.

Or no risk at all.

So, assuming you trust her and her abilities, I'd probably go for it.

But if there's any hesitation in your mind at all, then I'd look into some alternatives.

Naturally, her own machine would be the ideal (in her eyes, I'm certain, as well). It doesn't have to be super new and powerful, it certainly doesn't take a lot of horsepower to chat.

Another alternative might be to set up a virtual machine on your own machine - a sort of "windows running within windows" scenario, which can protect your machine to a large degree. This solution ends up depending more on your own expertise at setting up a virtual machine (using products like Parallels or VMWare) would be something you'd need to do. The result would be that the chat program would run on a copy of Windows (or even another OS) that's running separately, within its own protected environment, on your machine running Windows.

But ultimately, the risk isn't as much with the technology itself, but how it's used. And that's something that you'll have to judge.

Article C3390 - May 20, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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3 Comments
John
June 1, 2008 9:29 PM

I use avast! antivirus home (freeware) and it constantly monitors my msn, scanning chats and all files i recieve. also there are options in msn to disable file sharing (at leas the sharing folders option).

also there are other more basic chat programs that can still use the msn network such as Miranda, Trillian and aMSN which may prove less of a threat since they are not exactly the same as MSN (which i'd assume most viruses would be based on)

also a good firewall should let you configure certain aspects of the program, limiting its internet activity.

hope this helps.

Larry
June 11, 2008 9:00 PM

If yo use a chat program that is based on Flash then there will be no threat to your computer. gotachat

Mark
April 2, 2009 1:29 AM

I have been using MSN chat for ages and never gave me a problem to be honest. Recently created a Malta chat on my blog too. On my PC at home have installed AVG free and Spybot and it seems I'm well protected.

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