Another Black Eye for the Net

It began as a malicious love letter and ended up as a wake-up call — another nasty e-mail virus that seemed to prove that a truly safe Internet, if attainable at all, will be realized well in the future.

For people who are interested in advancing the notion that the Internet is a safe place — especially for conducting transactions — the timing could not have been worse. The media frenzy over the denial-of-service (DoS) attacks from late winter had just begun to die down.

Nasty Love Letter

Then, on Thursday morning, the love letter virus was unleashed on the world. Within hours, the British Parliament, the U.S. Congress and an untold number of businesses — including many with e-commerce concerns — were paralyzed by e-mail system failures and wholesale file destruction.

Front page material, to be sure — and the impact of those headlines on the collective psyche cannot be underestimated. Add in the fact that the love letter bug is the same type of virus as Melissa — who had her way with computers last year — and the Net has a public relations problem, to put it mildly.

Many of the people who read the stories and see the TV news reports will conclude that the Net is still in its Wild, Wild West phase, and is no place to risk their hard-earned money. And once again, e-commerce industry players are forced to go out and explain to one and all how safe the Web is without “protesting too much.”

A Sealed Vault

True, the love letter virus caused more than just headaches for a lot of people. But a closer examination of the February DoS attacks that crippled several e-commerce sites — including E*Trade, Amazon and eBay — reveals much ado about very little.

One online bank president compared the attacks to a scenario in which a bank customer arrives at his branch only to find the lobby crammed full of people — most of whom are not even customers. While it is a nuisance to have to wait or come back later, the customer has no reason for concern that the vault is being compromised.

The problem is, however, that the average Internet shopper has no way of knowing the difference.

Security a Hurdle

A recent Forrester Research report said that 40 percent of Internet users still feel unsafe using credit cards to make purchases online.

Yet that number could drop considerably with some better explanations of exactly what is going on behind the colorful Web site interfaces that users see. No, not every last technical detail needs to be explained — no one wants to hear them. However, e-tailers need to let their customers know that the viruses and hack attacks that may be costing them millions are not compromising consumer security.

Risk and Reward

Of course, is anything really truly safe? Everything involves risks, but preconceived notions and misinformation can transform sparks into bonfires. Internet security will only improve when its users become better informed about just what is going on behind all those modems and Web pages.

Ultimately, the time is now to take a stand. Instead of sitting back and bemoaning yet another example of poor timing, the Internet community needs to find a way to get the facts out to the people — and make them stick.

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