Only last year a group of clever teenagers at a famous English public school devised a programme which they put on the internet. Its task was simple: find any series of 16 digits that may be flying around and report them back to base. The smart lads from Highgate had worked out that most of the principal credit cards in the world had 16 digits; here was their chance to build a collection of them. Armed with the digits, our heroes embarked on a modest attempt to reflate the British economy, or at least those parts of it which trade in items most commonly associated with acne and hormones: hi-fis, guitars, keyboards, computers, videos and the like. Following telephone calls from puzzled purchasers in Tokyo, Alaska and Hamburg, Inspector Knacker did not have much difficulty in apprehending the villains. Once again the internet proved itself to be unsafe for actual commerce, as opposed to news about commerce.
Fast forward to 1996. Barclays Bank is launching what it claims to be a first for a British bank: an internet site dedicated to the needs of “expatriate and foreign national customers.” Without embarrassment they have named the site: “http://www.offshorebanking. barclays.com.” Formally, it will operate out of Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Jersey; but if you want to meet a human being employed by the bank to discuss, say, why your e-mail is always wrong, there is an actual building in Knightsbridge (where else) that houses this antiquated technological device.
The Barclays net site is certainly pretty; encryption has come a long way in the past year. But I wonder if the actions of the Highgate boys, and other famous hackers, have not put too many of us off the idea of putting sensitive or valuable information “out there.” The thought that you might be able to pay your gas bill while you are stuck in Adelaide, or sell your electricity shares while carrying out important company work in Colombo, is obviously attractive. Those of us who travel abroad a lot know the frustration of time shifts which make direct communication with our bank difficult; and who could be blamed for giving up on the banking practices of countries where English is not widely spoken? But before the Barclays site really takes off, I fear that a great deal more will need to be done by banks to convince enough people that…