When Marco Polo traveled to China, he followed the Silk Road, a trading route that stretched 4,000 miles between the old Roman Empire and Cathay. Over this road, East met West and ideas were exchanged as readily as products, such as silk, wool, gold and silver. The road created fortunes and changed cultures. The Internet is today's Silk Road, and while trade upon it is still relatively small, that's about to change.

According to a report from the investment-banking firm Goldman, Sachs & Co. called "B2B: 2B Or Not 2B?" e-commerce markets for both business-to-consumer and business-to-business are poised for explosive growth. The report estimates that the business-to-business e-commerce market in the United States will grow from $39 billion in 1998, to approximately $1.5 trillion in 2004.

The move into e-commerce and Web-based services comes at a time when government agencies are trying to increase their performance and reduce cost.

While government agencies' presence on the Internet has increased, many agencies are simply providing generic information and have not yet begun to provide full-scale transactions for information exchange, buying and selling online. This restraint is partly the result of concern about network and transaction security.

Additionally, concern over transaction security has made many consumers averse to making payments over the Internet. In general, security concerns in e-commerce can be divided into concerns about user authorization and concerns about data-transaction security.

Electronic Payment Systems

Electronic payment is an integral part of electronic commerce. Broadly defined, electronic payment is a financial exchange that takes place online between buyers and sellers. The content of this exchange is usually some form of digital financial instrument, such as encrypted credit card numbers, electronic checks or digital cash that is backed by a bank or an intermediary.

The goal of online commerce is to develop a small set of payment methods that are widely used by consumers and widely accepted by merchants and banks.

Electronic or digital cash is based on digital signatures. By supplying all customers with its public key, a bank enables customers to decode any message or currency encoded with the bank's private key. If the decryption key by a customer yields a recognizable message, the customer can be confident that the bank encoded it. Over the past two decades, digital signatures have been as secure as the mathematics involved and have proved to be more resistant to forgery than handwritten signatures.

Electronic checks are modeled on paper checks, except that they are initiated electronically, use digital signatures for signing and endorsing and require the use of digital certificates to authenticate the payer, the payer's bank and bank account.

EC Products

While fundamental computing issues are just now beginning to be raised and solved -- both in the area of legislation and new technologies -- a variety of industries are developing new applications that target government, consumer and business markets.

E-Mail and Web-Access Security

Conducting secure, electronic business transactions requires solid security products that go far beyond Web browsers' Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or basic e-mail encryption.

Unisys' Single Point Security suite --SP File and Mail Security -- enables users to store or send encrypted information to mail users both internally and externally.

The product uses a point-and-click toolbar that delivers strong encryption and digital-signature capabilities. It allows folders to be designated as "vaults" where any files stored in them will be encrypted as well.

In addition to the file and mail security program, Unisys offers "a Web-access control product, called Authenticate, that allows users to protect specific pages of their Web site. Unless a person shows you the specific security token -- a password or biometrics fingerprint -- they cannot access the protected page," said Cathleen Wilkening, security-marketing manager of Unisys.