Evolution of email to improve communication
Written by Kurt Attard
The world continues to register technological advances throughout the so-called fourth industrial revolution. This implies that we live in a world of technology where traditional businesses and entire industries are being disrupted by more effective and efficient means of delivering value. Typical industries that have been disrupted by the advent of technology include banking, shopping and commuting amongst others. For stakeholders within these areas, it was a matter of either re-thinking the delivery approach or cease operating.
There are of course innumerable other examples that can be discussed. One of the most evident in the recent decades, is the postal service. While it remains to be an undisputed critical service in society, it also had to bow before the power of technology. Its disruptor was electronic mail (email) and its ability to deliver almost any form of message virtually instantly.
Email has been around for a while and as it continues to advance and evolve, it is perhaps the most popular tool for social, as well as business communication. It started in the late 1960s when the first standard was developed. This permitted text-only communication which although limited, it was a main breakthrough at the time. The technology progressed to permit the inclusion of other elements in the communication channel. There are artefacts that are taken for granted today which includes images, sound, video and virtually any type of file. Scheduling appointments using calendars with features such as reminders and notes was later added to the collaborative technology system.
The Management Systems Unit (MSU), then the Malta Information Technology and Training Services (MITTS) and now the Malta Information Technology Agency (MITA) had commenced with plans to designing and implementing email across Government almost from the organisation’s inception in 1990. It took five years for the implementation to complete. In 1994 a pilot project had successfully delivered results across MSU employees paving the way for deployment across Government a year later.
Email is to date considered as the top-most critical technology for communication and continues to undergo consistent updates, upgrades and improvements to align with the ever-changing business needs. Email is designed to be accessible across several endpoints allowing client flexibility while balancing security.
Notwithstanding, a number of risks originating from attacks on this service remain and efforts to mitigate their probability are ongoing. Attacks can come in the form of spoofing, various forms of phishing, ransomware and spam amongst others. MITA has over the years invested in resources to be a leading model in creating a protection shield against the said issues as well as others.
For instance, during 2020, the Agency has commenced the deployment of a form of identity management technology that provides a more secure experience of authentication and authorisation. Such technology is deployed on top of the application layer (of the OSI reference model), thus offering encompassing protection irrespective of the endpoint from which the service is being accessed.
MITA has also acknowledged and embraced the principle that safeguarding a service by using just a username and a password is not necessarily enough. To this extent, technology layers such as multi-factor authentication have also had their strong share of investment. Online banking users are the most experienced with this type of technology whereby just before accessing the service, the client is requested to enter a dynamic identification PIN, over and above the account’s password. This technology is also evolving and apart from PIN protection, biometric technology is also becoming a stable channel for additional security in authentication.
While the Agency has, and continues to invest in technology, people, and processes, the reigning factor for protecting a critical service such as email, is user awareness and knowledge-enabled contribution. This includes questioning the veracity of received messages, confirming senders, not opening any attachment or clicking / tapping on any links within any message, unless the source is confirmed.
Social engineering is also another malicious, and unfortunately very effective form of attack, which almost no technology can protect against, yet. This is where an attacker attempts to manipulate another person into divulging sensitive information which could provide unsolicited access to a service. The countermeasure for this type of attack is to never expose any information unless explicitly consented by policies or procedures. For society in general, it is important to remember that any caller, or messenger that is asking questions related to passwords, configurations, or other elements which could also allow remote access to one’s workstation, should be considered as malicious and thus any such request shall not be entertained, while anti-cybercrime authorities should be informed.
In addition to all this, MITA has also invested in round the clock monitoring and event management. While this ensures that the required service level targets such as availability and capacity are achieved or improved, it also ensures that other aspects of security are captured, including but not limited to unsolicited traffic, hacking attempts and others.
One cannot ascertain what communication tools will emerge in the decades to come. While science fiction, or possibly words of visionaries can somewhat provide an indication, there is no doubt that email is currently the de facto standard for communication. It is very much taken for granted with little or no knowledge as well as appreciation of what takes place behind the scenes. The ability to seamlessly open an email client, type in some text and send it to anyone anywhere, is the result of a congregation of resources speeding ahead with one main continuous objective – meeting the needs of the business, as fast as possible, and while they continuously change.
The world continues to register technological advances throughout the so-called fourth industrial revolution. This implies that we live in a world of technology where traditional businesses and entire industries are being disrupted by more effective and efficient means of delivering value.