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Legally binding e-documents: Germany pushes secure email option

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Germany is putting its legislative and industrial muscle behind a new secure email system, dubbed De-mail, that aims to become an alternative to conventional paper documents for legally binding transactions.

The service earned a prominent place at the opening of the CeBIT trade show in Hanover at the same time as legislation to make electronic correspondence using such services legally binding is winding its way through the German houses of parliament.

Businesses and individuals looking to use the service will have to prove their identities before being issued with De-mail addresses. Because of this, the service may cut down on spoofing and spam messages, at least in theory, but the main aim is to act as an electronic equivalent to signed documents.

The service fails to offer end-to-end encryption, messages are decrypted and checked for viruses and other nasties en route, so all it provides (at best) is message integrity rather than confidentiality.

Deutsche Telekom, corporate email provider Mentana-Claimsoft and ISP United Internet were among those promoting the service – first trialled late last year – at CeBIT. The German Ministry of the Interior is backing the scheme, which allows service providers to charge for sending messages. Applications could include monthly billing and statements by banks and utilities, IDG reports.

Providers hope that the service will be seen as a faster alternative to recorded delivery snail-mail. Germany is already well ahead of most countries in the availability of e-commerce, so whether the development of the service helps propel it further ahead seems questionable. Service providers have set up the service, but whether merchants and consumers will welcome it is up in the air. For one thing consumers are likely to bridle at the idea of paying to send email. In addition, the types of people most likely to want more secure email (the privacy-conscious and banks) are those who are more likely to set up their own systems or use existing commercial systems such as Hushmail rather than have anything to do with something connected, albeit loosely, to the machinery of German government.

Lastly, supporting the service would involve system modification to corporate email systems, at the enterprise end, and the use of Outlook plug-ins at the consumer end, another potential drawback or at least inhibitor against the uptake of the service. ®

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