Technology experts warn that instant messaging (IM) is vulnerable to eavesdropping and physical tracking.

Brad Templeton, chair of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog group, said: “We are building a tool that is constantly keeping tabs on us.”

Speaking at the Presence and Instant Messaging Conference this week, Templeton said his chief concerns are the logging of chat conversations, their lack of encryption, and the potential for hackers to use them to track where you go.

Also brewing are issues such as how and when governmental entities, such as law enforcement agencies and the courts, can obtain IM transcripts, usage information, or other data.

Lenny Foner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab said: “Most people don’t care about security and privacy until they’ve lost it.”

He warns that IM could do just that: “Let’s not build-in Big Brother.”

It’s good to talk Market researchers at IDC estimate users sent 900 million instant messages on a typical day last year, and will send about 7 billion a day by 2004. According to a report by Jupiter Media Metrix, MSN Messenger has 29.5 million members in 12 countries; AOL Instant Messenger has 29.1 million members; and Yahoo Messenger has about 11 million.

Apple’s next iteration of Mac OS X – code-named Jaguar – will include iChat instant-messaging software.

The three leading instant-messaging services all dispute claims that their systems lack security, and each says it does not log its customers’ conversations or keep tabs on where they go. We may have to be satisfied with their word: representatives from the Federal Communications Commission – an independent United States government agency, directly responsible to Congress – says it has no plans to regulate IM technology.