Encryption Keeps E-mail Private

SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - Avoid an 'E-Mail Gate' scandal with these easy-to-use tools to cover your virtual tracks.

So you thought that tasteless joke you e-mailed to Mike in accounting would never see the light of day again? Guess again, and beware the life span of e-mail.

Last December, 23 New York Times employees lost their jobs for swapping bawdy e-mail messages. In February Northwest Airlines Inc. began court-authorized searches of the home PCs of more than a dozen flight attendants. The company was looking for evidence the workers organized a "sick-out" over holidays.

As employers grow wary of workers cyberloafing and worry about litigation over offensive and incriminating e-mail, many companies are cracking down with strict e-mail use policies and software to monitor network usage. A booming market for employee snoopware is expected to grow from US$31 million in 1998 to $259 million in 2003, according to market researcher IDC.

Those efforts are matched by an onslaught of companies trying to cash in on helping you protect your e-mail. Below are descriptions of three tools, each of which takes a slightly different approach to shielding your messages.

PrivacyX.com Solutions offers a free encryption e-mail product that lets you anonymously swap messages without the worry of e-mail coming back to haunt you.

Likewise, ZixIt invites you to download its free encryption product, ZixMail.

And ZipLip.com is striving to make it easier to send secure e-mail.

Encryption With Ease

ZixMail is an easy-to-use e-mail encryption service that works with your existing e-mail account. The 2MB downloadable ZixIt software program works in collaboration with any e-mail client and is responsible for encrypting and decrypting messages.

ZixMail messages arrive in the recipient's regular inbox as a proprietary (ZIX) file attachment. When you click on the attachment, the ZixMail application launches and prompts you to enter the password to decrypt the message so you can read it.

One drawback: If you want to send someone ZixMail, they must have ZixIt software installed on their PC. You can't send a ZixMail message to a non-ZixMail recipient.

Another problem is that ZixIt uses a proprietary encryption technology, which demands more trust from its users. ZixIt has been criticized for its earlier practice of keeping copies of users' private ZixIt keys, which allowed the company to unlock anyone's private e-mail.

ZixIt has reversed this policy, saying private keys are indeed private. For now the service is free, but ZixIt says it intends to charge $1 monthly starting in July.

E-Mail for Your Recipients' Eyes Only

PrivacyX.com Solutions can be used with either Netscape's Messenger or Microsoft's Outlook Express e-mail clients.

To get started, you simply enroll at the PrivacyX.com Web site, where you get your own PrivacyX.com e-mail address. When you enroll, the company requests permission to install a public and private encryption key on your PC's hard disk to lock and unlock messages.

PrivacyX.com, unlike other e-mail encryption providers, is interoperable with any product that uses the x.509 encryption standard. This popular standard is used by encryption heavyweight VeriSign, which distributes the majority of encryption technology to businesses and consumers. However, that doesn't include the Pretty Good Privacy encryption standard, which is also popular.

Both recipient and sender must use an x.509-compliant e-mail program to pipe encrypted messages back and forth. But even if you and the recipient both have x.509-friendly e-mail clients, you'll still need to send that person your public key one time so the recipient can unlock all your encrypted messages going forward.

PrivacyX.com works with your existing e-mail client in a clumsy way. Because Netscape 4.x and Microsoft Outlook Express don't support multiple e-mail accounts, you either need to replace your existing e-mail account or set up a new one configured to work with PrivacyX.com's POP3 server settings.

The company suggests you create a separate PrivacyX.com profile for your e-mail client, which is a hassle.

ZipLip Offers Erasable E-Mail

ZipLip.com offers a free Web-based way to send encrypted e-mail to any e-mail address. Recently, it began offering wireless access to encrypted e-mail.

ZipLip.com is unique in that it gives you the ability to virtually shred e-mail messages. It does this by giving you the power to configure e-mail messages to disappear an hour or a month after they are opened.

First, you sign up for a Web-based ZipLip.com account online just as you would for free Yahoo.com or Hotmail.com e-mail accounts. ZipLip.com will only ask you for a user name, password, and a zip code.

When you send a message, the e-mail isn't actually sent to the recipient.

Instead, it goes to a ZipLip.com computer server, where it is encrypted and stored.

The recipient is notified that an e-mail message is waiting for them to pick up. They get a hyperlink that takes them to the ZipLip.com server with your message. You can also password-protect messages, but that requires that the recipient know your password, which is somewhat clumsy.

By keeping e-mail off a PC's hard disk, ZipLip.com says it would stop an employer or nosy lawyer from being able to revive an incriminating message.

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