DE-Mail will create encrypted e-mail and digital signatures for legally binding correspondence for people, businesses and government. It's expected to be fully operational by the end of 2010.
Parliament has to approve the DE-Mail plan before anyone can start using it
A new program, called DE-Mail, will allow for official and secure communications between people in Germany, government and the private sector. Registration for the new system began this week.
However, DE-Mail is not expected to become fully operational until later this year, once the DE-Mail Act passes the German parliament. It has been tested in the southern German city of Friedrichshafen since 2009.
"DE-Mail gives both businesses and private users the possibility to do all their official communication with insurance companies, public authorities, and stuff like that, digitally," said Holger Neumann, a spokesperson for the German e-mail provider GMX, one of the first companies to offer DE-Mail.
The DE-Mail system would guarantee messages get to their intended recipient
Messages and documents sent in the new system would be regarded as legally binding, he added. Currently in Germany, contracts and other legal documents require an original signature, which prevents them from being digitally created or terminated.
Another European nation further up the Baltic coast, Estonia, may provide an example of what German society could look like in a few years. Since 2002, Estonia has had digital ID cards that allow for not only secure e-mail, but also other applications including Internet voting.
"What we have in Estonia and have had for eight years is that we have universal notion of digitally signed files," said Tarvi Martens, one of the leaders of the Estonian digital ID card project at the Estonian Certification Center.
"If you sign something digitally with your Estonian ID card, it universally replaces a paper written signature and this can be applied anywhere, terminating contracts, creating contracts, everywhere. Everywhere you'd need a paper signature you can replace it with an electronic signature," he said.
Security, authenticity are the primary concern
Most e-mails that people send are not secure. That means it is relatively easy for someone to intercept e-mails or to send messages with fake header information, such as the "from" line and the "subject" line.
By encrypting e-mails, the messages become essentially impossible to read by an unauthorized user. The only way to read a message is to have the decryption key. Secure e-mails with digital signatures also ensure that a particular message came from a particular person.
Currently, e-mail encryption and digital signatures are not used by most e-mail users as they can be cumbersome to set up.
That's why German authorities are creating all of the secure measures in an easy-to-use online e-mail interface. Organizers hope the system will be online soon and accessed through GMX, Web.de as well as Deutsche Post and Deutsche Telekom, which are among Germany's largest e-mail and Internet providers.
Starting this week, German residents can register for a new DE-Mail account. Then later, they will have to authenticate that account by proving their identity at a public office, like a city hall, or with a public officer who is dispatched to their home.
Once the DE-Mail system launches, users will have access to a separate secure web-based e-mail system that allows them to send and receive official messages only to another person, corporation or public entity that participates in the DE-Mail system.
DE-Mail users will pay per message
By the time these kids grow up, DE-Mail and digital ID cards could become commonplace
Another difference between DE-Mail and regular e-mail is that users will have to pay per message sent. GMX's Neumann said each message will likely be between 10 euro cents and 20 euro cents ($0.12 to $0.25). It will be free to receive messages.
"If you compare it to your regular e-mail it's more expensive," he said. "The DE-Mailbox will be free, but it's like in the physical world, if you send then you have to pay. If you compare to letters, it's pretty cheap."
He said the cost is meant to offset the newly created technical administration and infrastructure. However, there are plenty of other off-the-shelf secure e-mail products, including the free online e-mail service Hushmail, that provide similar security for free to any user.
Estonia's Martens said that making DE-Mail a paid service could slow its deployment across Germany.
"Estonian experience shows that, even if you make all the services available and free to use, it's still not enough to turn into mass market production," he said.
"You have to pay some money to promote the services and to teach people to use it," he added. "It's the other way around, you have to pay to get people to use your service."
But some Germans say that the planned pricing scheme won't stop them from signing up.
"Fifteen cents is quite a high price, but when there are several service providers that offer the system concurrently the prices will surely drop eventually," said Magnus Becker, a 26-year-old informatics student at the University of Bonn.
He said he's already registered his new DE-Mail account and looks forward to using it.
"DE-Mail is far more than an encryption system," he said. "It allows authentication, which means you can verify that the person on the other side is actually the one you think he is."
Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Sean Sinico