Could De-Mail solve the Identity Crisis of Online?
In the 1998 Spiderman comic, Peter Parker adopted four costumes different from his usual superhero outfit; each with different crime fighting personae. He had to do so because he was framed for murder by the evil Trapster. Four also seems be the average number of online identities an individual has nowadays. Looking at current numbers on online fraud, however, it's obvious that some users have less heroic intentions.
During the 2012 CeBit in Hannover/Germany, the BSI (the Federal Office for Information Security of Germany), accredited the first three providers of De-Mail services*. The key difference between a De-Mail and a regular email is that the receiver can be 100% sure about the identity of the receiver and the sender can be sure that the message has been delivered completely and correctly to the right receiver.
While the value of the actual mail service is disputable, it is "en passant" introducing a service called De-Ident which - as a concept - might be more suitable to solving the identity crisis of online.
Since De-Mail is a quite specific German idea, for the benefit of my international colleagues let me give you a brief introduction.
Any individual or institution resident in Germany can sign up for the service and will receive a new email account in the following format: <name>@<de-mail-provider>.de-mail.de for individuals, or for institutions, <name>@<institution>.de-mail.de. As you can see, all email addresses are a sub to the de-mail.de domain independent from that of the provider. This is to signal to the receiver of a De-Mail that he can trust the identity of the sender.
De-Mail was created to enable compliance with the EU Directive on services in the internal market. Although the directive is primarily about the exchange of services in a unified market, it also requires EU states to accept electronic communication as legally binding. Interestingly, the directive in question has been in effect since 2009 so we are pretty late.
Accessing your De-Mail account in general is web based (there are gateway solutions for companies) and the use of most features requires a "strong" identification such as a mobile TAN (a one-time authorisation code sent to your mobile). Official prices are not quite clear yet, but providers will probably charge the sender around 40 Eurocent per message.
So since now we have De-Mail why would you want it? Why would anyone want yet another new email address and pay a fee for each email sent? For the De-Mail service providers, the market is not so much the conservatively estimated 40 billion emails, but more the 7.5 billion paper letters sent in Germany (of course it's emails per day and letters per year).
De-Mail leaves open many questions around encryption and data privacy. Equally, since the De-Mail doesn't give the message a different legal status, only transport of the message is secured. Therefore, the application seems limited. The system is usable by German residents only so any communication even across EU borders, let alone international users, is out of the picture. In summary I would question that De-Mail is going to solve the identity problem in day to day communication.
But now about De-ident, which I find really interesting and which potentially goes beyond the scope of exchanging messages. You probably guessed already that this service provides the means to validate the identity of an individual - in real time. In contrast to sending and receiving De-Mail the process for De-Ident is pretty simple and pretty much like a normal registration process on any website. But De-Ident adds the benefit of knowing that the user is indeed the person he claims to be.
De-Ident also has open questions, but today many services on the web require a verification of age or identity. For arguments sake let's assume the numbers of De-Mail users would indeed achieve critical mass, since the similar "ePostbrief" gathered 1m users very quickly this seems possible (although only 100k use the service actively). I think De-Ident could really speed up and simplify online signup processes.
Couldn't De-Mail in the end help companies provide a better service to users because they know who they are dealing with? Wouldn't that make fake users a thing of the past? Facebook alone has more than 40 million of them.
* I apologize for most of the links provided in this post point to German websites but it's pretty hard to find a lot of information about them in English.