THE MAGAZINE

Worth a Look: E-mail Encryption Simplified

By John Wagley

Many people, myself included, would like to encrypt e-mail, to ensure privacy. But up until now, the complexity of the process has been an impediment.

In the past, I’ve tried setting up some desktop-based solutions for personal use. Once or twice, I’ve made it through some of the required setup steps, which included downloading encryption software, generating public and private encryption keys, and formatting an e-mail program. But my enthusiasm quickly waned when I would remember that to exchange messages, every intended recipient would need to download the same software, go through the same steps, and exchange keys with me beforehand.

While individuals have the option of giving up, it’s different for business. Regulations are increasingly requiring e-mail encryption in industries such as finance, medicine, and law. Fortunately, progress is being made.

At least one company, Voltage Security, is simplifying the process. It offers a hosted solution that all but abolishes the typical e-mail encryption headaches.

Signing up for the Palo Alto, California-based company’s Virtual Security Network (VSN) involves providing a user name, a password, and an e-mail address. Verify a confirmation message that arrives in your inbox, and you’re ready to go.

Two basic communication arrangements are offered with the service. One is to compose and send messages after logging into the VSN. Another option is to download a plug-in for use with Outlook Express. With the latter choice, users get a new “send secure” button.

Any recipient can receive any message—no prior planning or downloading is needed. Messages contain an HTML link; recipients are asked to provide a user name and password before viewing the message in a secure browser.

Voltage’s special sauce is its patented identity-based encryption, which encrypts messages based on a host of factors, such as the sender’s identity or e-mail address, the destination domain, or a message subject line.

The VSN is marketed primarily to independent professionals and small- and mid-sized businesses. But there’s no reason it could not work for large enterprises in certain circumstances, such as when communicating with contractors or with other third parties.

The solution provides true end-to-end security. Messages can only be read by senders and recipients. They aren’t even stored on a Voltage server.

Pros. Fast and easy to set up. Messages can be sent to any recipient without exchanging keys or configuring software.

Cons. It would be nice if this were compatible with Mozilla’s popular Thunderbird client; it’s currently just Outlook-compatible. 

Cost. Voltage points out that compared to some competing desktop products, the VSN requires virtually no training. Licenses are $65 a year. A 10 percent discount applies for purchases of 101 to 250 users, and a 15 percent cost reduction is available for any company buying 251 to 500 licenses.


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