Few bankers know as much about data security as Colin Crook - and few are as wary about the Internet.
"I personally do not do financial transactions on the Internet," said Mr. Crook, Citicorp's senior technology officer.
At a telecommunications seminar in New York last week, Mr. Crook was generally optimistic about the commercial potential of the Internet and its World Wide Web, which he billed as both "a threat and a promise."
He is unsure when Citicorp will deem the Web secure enough for financial transactions. Today's banks on the Web are conducting exercises in "risk management," Mr. Crook said.
"The notion of electronic commerce is quickly losing its narrow focus as an electronic payment system," he said. "It is now viewed in a much broader context of electronic customer contact, multimedia, interactivity, advertising, and enterprise restructuring."
At the seminar, sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers of Piscataway, N.J., Mr. Crook underscored his concern that the Internet offers wrongdoers the opportunity to "perpetrate fraud on a massive scale."
While a waiter holding a customer's credit card in a restaurant has only a limited time to pirate the number, Mr. Crook said, the "nonlinear" nature of the Internet makes time less of a constraint. Thousands of credit card numbers could be pilfered in an instant, he said, and precious corporate brand names could be sullied.
"One disgruntled customer will have the ability to do enormous damage in cyberspace," Mr. Crook said.
In one example of "electronic grafitti," Mr. Crook pointed to the infiltration of the Central Intelligence Agency's Web site. "Hackers transformed it to the 'central agency for stupidity,'" he said. "And that was just a crass example."
Warnings aside, Mr. Crook expressed confidence that Internet commerce would grow rapidly. He cited estimates that $20 million in sales took place on-line in 1994, and $500 million in 1995. By 2000, he said, varying researchers project $5 billion to $30 billion of transactions will be conducted electronically, with 150 million to 200 million people using the Web.
"In technology, we tend to overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term," said Mr. Crook.
"It's not clear to me that the case for electronic cash is very good" in the short term, he said. "Plain old money is very effective."
Citicorp has spent years developing a hardware-based electronic cash scheme known as the Electronic Money System. Sholom Rosen, the system's chief architect, recently received another of several patents on the system.
Mr. Crook said digital cash technologies like Electronic Money System - as well as those of Digicash Inc. and Mondex - were not ripe for widespread use, despite the liberal attitudes of regulators.
"You would think this would be an amazing source of trauma" for the regulators, he said.
In the near term, Mr. Crook said the Secure Electronic Transactions standard approved by Visa and MasterCard held promise for safe credit card payments on the Internet. And the development of E-check by the Financial Services Technology Consortium (of which Citibank is a founding member) might be the vehicle to project a check-like instrument into the on-line world.
Digital money, he said, "really holds the promise of a radical transformation in the long term."
Trained as an engineer at the City of Liverpool's College of Technology in England, Mr. Crook has been at Citicorp since 1990. He previously worked at Motorola Corp., British Telecom, and Data General USA.
In 1981, he became the youngest person ever elected to the United Kingdom's Royal Academy of Engineers.
"When you get into cyberspace, you can't trust anything," he said. "How do you establish relationships with customers in cyberspace?"
Maintaining the interest of "the MTV generation" will be another challenge, he said. "We're going to be dealing with a bunch of customers who get bored very easily."