Instant messaging (IM)

Instant messaging (IM) is a type of online chat that offers real-time text transmission over the internet from one device to another.

Back to glossary

Instant messaging (IM) is a type of online chat that offers real-time text transmission over the internet. This form of communication has become a significant part of our daily lives, allowing us to connect with others instantly and conveniently. However, as with any form of digital communication, it also presents several cybersecurity concerns that users must be aware of.

The following sections will delve into the intricacies of instant messaging, its history, how it works, its benefits and drawbacks, and the cybersecurity implications associated with it. This comprehensive glossary entry aims to provide a thorough understanding of instant messaging in the context of cybersecurity.

History of Instant Messaging

The concept of instant messaging dates back to the 1960s, with the development of multi-user operating systems. These systems allowed multiple users to log in at different terminals, and they could communicate with each other through a 'write' command. However, the first widely used instant messaging system was ICQ, launched in 1996 by the Israeli company Mirabilis.

Since then, the landscape of instant messaging has evolved dramatically, with numerous platforms such as MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger gaining popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, we have a plethora of instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat, each with millions, if not billions, of users worldwide.

Evolution of IM Features

Over the years, instant messaging has evolved from simple text-based messages to include a variety of features. These include the ability to send images, videos, voice messages, and even conduct video calls. Some platforms also offer 'status' features, allowing users to share updates with their contacts.

Additionally, many instant messaging platforms have integrated additional functionalities such as games, stickers, and the ability to send money. These features have significantly enhanced the user experience, making instant messaging a versatile communication tool.

How Instant Messaging Works

At its core, instant messaging involves the transmission of messages over the internet in real-time. When a user sends a message, it is first sent to a server, which then relays it to the recipient. This process happens almost instantaneously, giving the impression of a live conversation.

Most instant messaging platforms use a client-server model, where the user's device (the client) communicates with a central server. The server is responsible for routing messages to their intended recipients. Some platforms, however, use a peer-to-peer model, where messages are sent directly between users without going through a central server.

Protocols and Standards

Instant messaging platforms use various protocols and standards to facilitate communication. These include the Simple Message Transfer Protocol (SMTP), the Post Office Protocol (POP), and the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP). These protocols define how messages are sent, received, and stored.

Additionally, some platforms use proprietary protocols, which are unique to their service. These protocols often include additional features, such as encryption, to enhance security and privacy.

Cybersecurity Implications of Instant Messaging

While instant messaging offers numerous benefits, it also presents several cybersecurity risks. These include the risk of malware, phishing attacks, and data breaches. As such, users must be vigilant when using instant messaging platforms and take necessary precautions to protect their data.

Furthermore, the real-time nature of instant messaging can make it a target for cybercriminals. For example, attackers can use instant messaging to distribute malicious links or files, tricking users into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware.

Malware and Phishing Attacks

One of the most common cybersecurity threats associated with instant messaging is malware. This can be spread through files or links sent over instant messaging platforms. Once a user clicks on a malicious link or opens a malicious file, the malware can infect their device, leading to data loss, unauthorized access, or other harmful effects.

Phishing attacks are another common threat. In these attacks, cybercriminals impersonate a trusted entity to trick users into revealing sensitive information, such as passwords or credit card numbers. Instant messaging platforms can be used to distribute phishing links, making them a potential vector for these attacks.

Data Privacy and Encryption

Data privacy is a significant concern in instant messaging. Many platforms collect and store user data, including messages, contacts, and location information. This data can be a target for cybercriminals, leading to data breaches and identity theft.

To mitigate these risks, many instant messaging platforms use encryption to protect user data. Encryption scrambles the data in a message, making it unreadable to anyone without the correct decryption key. This can help protect user data from unauthorized access, even if it is intercepted during transmission.

Best Practices for Secure Instant Messaging

Given the cybersecurity risks associated with instant messaging, it is crucial for users to follow best practices to protect their data. These include using strong, unique passwords, being wary of unsolicited messages, and regularly updating their software to the latest version.

Furthermore, users should be cautious when sharing sensitive information over instant messaging. If possible, sensitive information should be shared through secure, encrypted channels. Users should also be aware of the data privacy policies of the platforms they use and adjust their settings accordingly to protect their privacy.

Use of Antivirus Software

Using antivirus software can help protect against malware threats in instant messaging. Antivirus software can scan incoming files and links for known threats and block them before they can infect the user's device.

It's also important to keep the antivirus software up-to-date. New malware threats are constantly emerging, and antivirus software needs to be updated regularly to recognize and block these threats.

Education and Awareness

Education and awareness are crucial in cybersecurity. Users should be aware of the risks associated with instant messaging and how to mitigate them. This includes recognizing the signs of phishing attacks, understanding the importance of strong passwords, and knowing how to use encryption and other security features.

Organizations can also play a role in promoting cybersecurity awareness. This can include providing training to employees on secure instant messaging practices, as well as implementing policies and procedures to manage the use of instant messaging in the workplace.


Instant messaging is a powerful communication tool that has transformed the way we connect with others. However, it also presents several cybersecurity risks that users must be aware of. By understanding these risks and following best practices, users can enjoy the benefits of instant messaging while protecting their data and privacy.

As the landscape of instant messaging continues to evolve, so too will the associated cybersecurity challenges. It is therefore crucial for users to stay informed about the latest threats and mitigation strategies, and for organizations to invest in cybersecurity measures to protect their networks and data.

Author Sofie Meyer

About the author

Sofie Meyer is a copywriter and phishing aficionado here at Moxso. She has a master´s degree in Danish and a great interest in cybercrime, which resulted in a master thesis project on phishing.

Similar definitions

CompuServe Decoupled Syllogism Central processing unit (CPU) Attenuation Encoding Confidentiality Modem Provisioning Video graphics array (VGA) Keylogger TL;DR Inference Tweaking Creeper Virus