A technology more than a decade-old is routinely ignored by online banking vendors despite a sustained push to find technology that counteract fraud and phishing: S/MIME. For the unaware, S/MIME is a set of standards that define a way to sign and encrypt e-mail messages using a public key infrastructure (PKI) to either provide a way to prove the identity of the message sender (signing), to encrypt the contents of the message so that only the recipient can view the message (encryption), or both (signing and encrypting). The use of a PKI scheme to create secure communications is generally implemented with asymmetric sets of public and private keys, where in a signing scenario, the sender of messages makes their public key available to the world which can be used to validate that only the corresponding private key was used to craft a message.
This secure messaging scheme offers a way for financial institutions to digitally prove any communication dressed up to look like it came from the institution in fact was crafted by them. This technology can both thwart the falsification of the ‘from address’ from which a message appears to be sent as well as ensures the content of the message, it’s integrity, is not compromised by any changing of facts or figures or the introduction of other language, links, or malware by any of the various third-parties that are involved with transferring an e-mail from the origin to the recipient. The application for financial institutions is obvious in a world where over 95% of all e-mail sent worldwide is spam or a phishing scam. Such gross abuse of the system threatens to undermine the long-term credibly medium, which, in a “green” or paperless world, is the only cost-effective way many financial institutions have to maintain contact with their customers.
So, if the technology is readily available and the potential benefits are so readily apparent, why hasn’t digital e-mail signatures caught on in the financial services industry? I believe there are several culprits here:
1. Education. End-users are generally unaware of the concept of “secure e-mail”, since implementing digital signatures from a sender’s perspective requires quite a bit of elbow grease, today colleagues don’t send secure messages between each other. Moreover, most financial institution employees are equally untrained in the concept of secure e-mail, how it works, and much less, how to explain it to their customers to make it understandable as well as a competitive advantage. Financial institutions have an opportunity to take a leadership role with digital e-mail signatures, since as one of the most trusted vendors any retail customer will ever have, creating a norm of secure e-mail communications across the industry can drive both education and technology adoption. Even elderly users and young children understand the importance of the “lock icon” in web broswers before typing in sensitive information such as a social security number, a credit card number, or a password — with proper education, users can learn to demand the same protection afforded by secure e-mail.
2. Lack of Client Support. Unfortunately, as more users shift from desktop e-mail clients to web-based e-mail clients like Gmail and Yahoo Mail, they lose a number of features in these stripped down, advertising-laden SaaS apps, one of which is often the ability to parse a secure e-mail. The reasons of this are partially technological (it does take a while to re-invent the same wheel desktop client applications like Outlook and Thunderbird have mastered long ago), partially a lack of demand due to the aforementioend ‘education’ reason, and partially unscrupulous motives of SaaS e-mail providers. The last point I want to call special attention to because of the significance of the problem: Providers of SaaS applications “for free” are targeted advertising systems, which have increasingly used not just the profile and behavior of end-users to develop a targeted promotional experience, but the content of their e-mails themselves to understand a user’s preferences. Supporting S/MIME encryption is counter to the aim of scanning the body of e-mails to determine context, when in a secure e-mail platform, Hotmail for instance, would be unable to peek into messages. Unfortunately, this deliberate ommission of encryption support in online e-mail clients has meant that digital signatures, the second part of the S/MIME technology, is often also omitted. In early 2009, Google experimented with adding digital signature functionality to Gmail; however, it was quickly removed after it was implemented., If users came to demand secure e-mail communications from their financial institutions, these providers would need to play along.
3. Lack of Provider Support. It’s no secret most online banking providers have a software offering nearly a decade old, which is increasingly a mishmash of legacy technologies, stitched together with antiquated components and outdated user interfaces to create a fragile, minimally working fabric for an online experience. Most have never gone back to add functionality to core components, like e-mail dispatch systems to incorporate technologies like S/MIME. Unfortunately, because their customers who are technologically savvy enough to request such functionality represents a small percentage of their customer base, even over ten years later, other online banking offerings still neglect to incorporate emerging security technologies. While a bolt-on internet banking system has moved from a “nicety” to a “must have” for large financial services software providers, the continued lack of innovation and continuous improvement in their offers is highly incongruent with the needs of financial institutions in an increasingly connected world where security is paramount.
S/MIME digital e-mail signatures is long over-due in the fight against financial account phishing; however, as a larger theme, financial institutions either need to become better drivers of innovation in stalwart online banking companies to ensure their needs are met in a quickly changing world, or they need to identify the next generation of online banking software providers, who embrace today’s technology climate and incorporate it into their offerings as part of a continual improvement process.