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Consumer distrust could lash e-commerce

Without a major push to win trust in online transactions, buyers may return to old ways, Symantec and VeriSign warn. Symantec, VeriSign CEOs onstage

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Symantec and VeriSign executives on Wednesday urged business leaders to protect the digital economy, warning that if online commerce doesn't become more trustworthy, consumers might fall back on old-fashioned purchasing methods.

"We can't go back to the old way of doing business; that's why creating confidence in the digital world is everybody's job," Symantec Chief Executive Officer John Thompson said during a keynote address at the annual RSA Conference here. "Unless each and every one of us, enterprises and consumers, can prove to the other that we are trusted partners, the risks associated with online transactions will become unacceptable."

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Video: Symantec CEO has a warning
At RSA 2006, Thompson says it won't be a major cyberattack that will cripple electronic business, it will be loss of consumer confidence.

Digital interactions touch almost everything consumers do, Thompson pointed out. "Even when we think we're unplugged, we're not," he said. Online transactions affect businesses as well, helping them cut costs, among other advantages. Businesses are thus heavily relying on the efficiencies of digital technologies and looking to employ them further in the future.

But as electronic commerce has grown, so has the number of security threats. Identity theft still tops the list of consumer complaints at the Federal Trade Commission, new data security breaches are often reported, and phishing is on the rise. All of those factors undermine trust in digital commerce, Thompson stressed.

VeriSign Chief Executive Officer Stratton Sclavos struck a similar chord in a separate keynote address Wednesday. "Consumer confidence (in e-commerce) has dropped," he said. Sclavos pitched VeriSign Identity Protection and other products sold by the Mountain View, Calif.-based company as part of the solution.

VeriSign Identity Protection, announced earlier this week, enables consumers to use a single security device, such as a one-time password-generating token, to authenticate any Web site affiliated with the service. VeriSign has won support from Yahoo, eBay and PayPal for the service, it has said.

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Devices such as cell phones and USB storage gadgets can also be used for authentication on Web sites that use the new VeriSign Identity Protection, Sclavos said. "You can't convince consumers that they need to have a different security model everywhere they go," he said.

Thompson's speech was less of a product-specific pitch than a call to action for business leaders. "If we fail to create a trusted digital environment, we won't just slow the growth of e-business, but of all business," he said. "We must reach beyond the walls of our individual companies."

No simple solutions exist, however. "It's a complex issue, one that won't be solved with a protect-the-PC or secure-the-network mentality," Thompson said.

Addressing the issue requires a broad approach, he said. Yes, consumers still need to install security software, but public policy needs to help as well, Thompson said. He called on Congress to pass strong data security breach laws.

Thompson did give a glimpse of future Symantec products. The company is working on a database audit and security appliance that plugs into a company's network and logs all traffic to databases on that network. The log can aid companies in their audit and compliance programs, but the appliance also flags anomalous queries that could be a sign of an attack or of insiders accessing data they shouldn't have access to.

Additionally, Thompson mentioned a safe Web search service Symantec has been working on under the moniker Security 2.0. The service would display a Web site credibility rating and user reviews on the search results page. Symantec has not said when, or if, it will deliver that product.