A new threat centre has been set up by virtually the entire instant messaging industry to detect and tackle the ever-increasing problem of IM and peer-to-peer viruses and worms.

Led by corporate IM software vendor IMlogic, the centre will analyse and warn against the vulnerabilities. It is offering free alerts and e-mail notifications of risk assessments and threat management for subscribers.

The group includes leading IM providers Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft as well as Jabber and Antepo, plus security companies McAfee, Symantec and Sybari.

The group's formation follows evidence that security threats against IM and P-to-P networks are growing. Symantec estimated that viruses and worms spread on IM and P-to-P networks grew 400 percent from 2002 to 2003. This year has seen continued threats, including some targeted at the MSN Messenger and ICQ instant messaging systems.

A list of the top security vulnerabilities recently released by the SANS Institute put both file sharing and IM vulnerabilities in the top 10 for Windows users, as researchers labelled them new categories of risk. "IM and P-to-P viruses and worms aren't as widespread as those in e-mail but they are definitely a threat to a lot of people," said Carole Theriault, a security consultant at Sophos PLC.

Smaller companies are particularly at risk because they often focus on using anti-virus software to protect their e-mail but overlook using firewalls to guard their servers and desktops, Theriault said. In addition to viruses targeted at IM, malicious code is also often spread through messaging, allowing it to be easily obtained and tweaked by amateur virus writers to produce myriad and hard-to-track variants of threats, according to Theriault.

IMlogic's consortium is hoping to get a better idea of the kinds of security vulnerabilities lurking on IM networks through global monitoring and broad industry feedback.

The effort is being coordinated at the IMlogic Threat Center. Three high-risk and three medium-risk virus alerts have already been posted on its first day.