When you send an instant message via Apple’s iChat, your words are transmitted in the clear – anyone can read what you’ve written using packet-sniffing software, either on your local network or over AOL’s instant-messaging network (which is used to transmit iChat messages).
This may be of little concern if your chats revolve around last night’s TV shows, but when chats contain sensitive personal or company information, security is a serious matter. Intego’s ChatBarrier X3 10.3.1 applies what soundslike a high standard – “military-grade” 512-bit encryption – to iChat messaging, but this levelof encryption may not satisfyevery user’s security needs.
ChatBarrier X3’s intelligent design is unobtrusive. When you initiate a text chat with another ChatBarrier X3 user, a background pattern of gray padlocks, and a small padlock icon beside the text-entry field, indicates that the chat is encrypted. An unlocked-padlock icon signifies a lack of encryption when you chat with people who aren’t using the software. Using the packet sniffer in Interarchy 7.2 to examine the data stream, I verified that, when enabled, ChatBarrier X3 does indeed encrypt text. But while the program is ideal for messaging between iChat users, it doesn’t work with audio or video chats, and it doesn’t encrypt file transfers, chats with more than two participants, or Direct Instant Message sessions.
Unfortunately, ChatBarrier X3’s encryption method appears to rely more on obfuscation than on published security protocols. Intego says that the “military-grade” encryption is a proprietary “derivative of triple-DES encryption.” In practice, this means your iChat sessions are probably safe from casual eavesdropping, but the lack of an open, peer-reviewed encryption protocol precludes total security.
If you’re serious about encrypting your instant messages, especially if you require your chats to be confidential, software such as Fire (which uses GPG, or “open PGP”) or BitWise Communications’ BitWise (which uses the Crypto++ library) may better serveyour encryption needs. But keep in mind that security works by degrees: for most people, ChatBarrier X3’s scheme is perfectly acceptable. It will certainly deter casual eavesdropping, and its clean implementation requires no extra configuring or manual activation when you want to secure your chats.