E-mail lockdown

Polyscribe protects information by keeping messages in one location

LOTS OF E-MAIL add-on programs have tried to lock down security in this inherently insecure medium. And there are ways to make it work ' sort of ' by adding encryption and passwords to compressed files before sending them. Even then, once you give a file to someone, you have no control over what he or she does with it.

Cambridge Systems' Polyscribe Control Content Environment system takes a slightly different approach to security because e-mail and information almost never leave the main server.

That approach allows tight control over who can see, edit and download files to the point that you can limit even the number of times a valid user can read a message.

Some government agencies will scoff at having documents and e-mail stored outside their direct control, but the service fills a longtime troubling gap. You would not send top-secret information through the system, but it could be appropriate for material such as newsletters, human resources data and even sensitive information with lower security classifications.

Rather than buy a product, agencies would buy the use of the Polyscribe system. For $80, an account can send as much as 100M of data through the secure site or www.polyscribe.com for one year, whichever comes first. If you send more than that, you can upgrade to a 300M account for $240.

Because the data remains on the Polyscribe servers, almost any restrictions can be placed on it. When a user sends an e-mail, the recipient gets a note saying that a message exists with a link to where he or she can view it.

However, the data never leaves the sender's control. How many times have you gotten an e-mail message followed a few minutes later by a correction or retraction? That would not likely happen with Polyscribe CCE because a message can be edited or even deleted after it has been sent. Users who click to read a message that has since been edited will see only the most current version. If the sender has deleted the message, recipients get a message saying the e-mail is no longer available.

Other options include limiting the number of times a user can view a message or restricting its viewing to his or her IP address. That prevents multiple people from opening and viewing the mail, stops one person from viewing it from different computers, and can even block a user from opening it more than once. And because the system tracks who has looked at messages, a glance at your in-system e-mail box lets you see when and from what IP address someone clicked on the link and read the mail.

Users can also upload a watermark, such as their agency's logo, into the system and have it placed in the background of all messages sent so there is no mystery about where the information came from or who owns it. That is a new feature. Previously, the IP address of the viewer appeared as a watermark, which tended to block out text in documents. After GCN Lab reviewers pointed this out, the 'use custom logo' feature was added, and watermarks were moved to the background where they no longer interfere much with readability. You can upload your logo from the Profile section of the interface.

You could also set the system to let users download a file you have uploaded in its native format or as a PDF. This would count against your file-size limit. If you let 10 people download a 1M file, it would take up 10M of the capacity you bought, so use this feature with care.

It does, however, give the system the ability to send more than plain text.

Sending e-mail through the system is not as easy as composing a normal message, but it's surprisingly simple. We learned the interface after about 10 minutes of training and could probably have done so with no instruction other than a few technical facts about some of the check boxes.

Each of three main windows in the Send window does something slightly different. One box is labeled E-mail Message. This is the unsecured part of the message that receivers will get in their inboxes.

Senders typically type something like, 'Here is the data you wanted about the project. Click on the secure link to view it.'

Whatever you then type into the Secure Message channel is the hidden part of the message that a recipient can view only after clicking the link and connecting to the Polyscribe server via the secure HTTP channel.

Finally, there is a box called Secure Form, an interesting feature that lets you make a secure form for entering data. This can be helpful if, for example, you are a human resources worker who needs to collect the Social Security numbers of potential new employees. All you would have to do to create such a form would be to type 'SSN.'

It doesn't matter what you type because anything will trigger creation of a form. You could type 'Your Dog's Name,' and that's what a user would see, followed by a text entry window.

Polyscribe servers use the Advanced Encryption Standard.

Another feature that attempts to address government agencies' resistance to using offsite servers is the AES password field. When you fill in this box, the system will encrypt the text you place in the Secure Message box so it enters the Polyscribe system as encrypted gibberish that it passes on to the recipient. You must give the recipient the password using some other method, such as an e-mail message to a separate account, a text message or a phone call. They will need the password to read the message, which is decrypted off-line. That is an option for information you don't want to entrust to the Polyscribe servers, although there are dedicated programs and appliances for that purpose.

The Polyscribe CCE functions quite well. It won't replace any established methods of handling secret data, but it improves normal e-mail security tenfold, making it a good solution to the problems inherent in using e-mail for sensitive data.

Also, it only works if a relationship already exists between the sender and recipient, given that we are all trained by now never to click on a link from a strange e-mail address. But if you tell the person that a secure message is coming, or he or she knows to expect these things from you, everything should run smoothly. For the price, the CCE fills a niche that has been unserved for quite some time.

Cambridge Systems, (703) 435-5110, www.camsoftinc.com

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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