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Banks need to back the Net, too

Making online purchases safer will help spur a Web economy comeback.

Today and tomorrow, Iconocast.com’s “Back the Net” campaign is asking us to support the online economy by making an online purchase or donation. I’ll gladly contribute–I buy online all the time, and have had nothing but good experiences, from Amazon to Uneeda Artworks. But lately I’ve been wondering how long my luck will hold out. I’m not normally given to paranoia, but escalating cybercrime reports are making me think twice about putting my personal information out there in somebody’s online database. Back the Net is a good idea that we can build on, so let me propose this: To build a thriving Internet economy, we also need a Take Back the Net initiative aimed at Internet-based companies and our financial institutions.

Taking back the Net means monitoring the progress of online privacy, security, and liability policies–taking time to read the fine print and letting those companies and our government representatives know what we support. Banks and other moneymongers, for their part, need to do a better job of shoring up their security and informing us in non-legalese just what their policies are regarding online fraud.

On that second note, for instance, I recently revisited my bank’s online policies. My husband was convinced that a regular credit card was insured against theft for online purchases, but that our check card was not. According to what I read on our bank’s Web pages, that’s not the case; our check-card transactions are protected. Of course, the fine print seems to leave room for negotiation, so I’d hate to have to find out the reality. I can hear the friendly customer service rep now: “Sorry, we don’t cover theft by Eastern European hacking ring.”

As for shoring up online security, there has been some progress. A few months ago I wrote about the need for smarter online shopping security options, such as a mechanism that would assign a random number to each online purchase. I’ve since learned that American Express has been offering an online shopping program that assigns random numbers to purchases. (There are still some bugs to work out, however–currently there are too many exceptions to the program, and merchants have a harder time tracking orders.) And Visa will soon enforce a security policy that includes mandatory encryption and use of firewalls for online merchants. Those that don’t measure up could get fined, according to BusinessWeek Online.

These are necessary first steps, but to kick the Web economy into higher gear, I urge banks to create smart (encrypted) check cards and give away smart-card readers (instead of the usual clock or toaster) for signing up. That would help the Web become much more useful–and safe–for shoppers on a regular basis. After all, I don’t put groceries or a couple of books on my credit card when I’m out in the real world. Why should I want to pay interest to buy these things over the Web, just because some credit-card companies are currently offering the best forms of data encryption?

For more on online security, see:

Alex Salkever’s “Simpler Ways to Stymie Cyberthiefs” in BusinessWeek Online

American Express Private Payments program

Yahoo! Cybercrime and Internet Fraud news page

Iconocast’s Back the Net campaign

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