In the 1980s and early ’90s, when a fast-rising crime rate made the nation feel like a lawless place, the gated community became a feature of the American landscape. People who could afford it took shelter there to keep the outside world at bay.
Today, the criminal of the moment isn’t the Uzi-toting gang enforcer, it’s the hacker. Each day seems to bring a new story about Chinese online spies stealing secrets from American companies, and earlier this month an anonymous hacker posted personal photographs and excerpts taken from e-mails from the Bush family, including a much-remarked-upon self-portrait George W. Bush painted of himself in the shower.
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that someone would think to offer a sort of gated community for data online, a place where the correspondence and personal information of the rich would be vigilantly guarded from the predators roaming the wider Web. A little over two years ago, the New York-based Web security firm Summitas–funded by Howard Milstein, the billionaire real estate developer and chief executive officer of Emigrant Savings Bank–launched a website to do just that. The portal allows wealthy individuals and families to send secure e-mails, store documents online in a “digital vault,” and even set up private, family-only social networks.
The rich are different from you and me, Fitzgerald might have written. They have their own Internet.
According to its CEO, a former private banker named William Wyman, Summitas’s clients tend to be individuals worth more than $5 million, along with investment advisers and “family offices,” the private companies that exist solely to manage the assets of a single family. One of Summitas’s clients, Wyman says, is a family worth more than $2 billion. That means they’re able to easily pony up the $7,500 or more per year that the company charges to set up a special website and customize it for each client. “They think of the service like insurance,” Wyman says of his clients. There’s also a bare-bones version, with just the digital vault and limited sharing, available for as little as $19 a month. Summitas claims 600 total users for its customized service, and 3,600 for the more basic one.
With Summitas, members of a wealthy family can share information online, comforted by the knowledge that everything is being protected by National Security Agency-level encryption. They can upload a digital copy of a last will or the title to a vacation house in case the original goes missing. They can leave unguarded comments on the secure “wall,” post pictures of the yacht without worrying about what people outside the family will think, and e-mail each other travel itineraries, bank information, or, if they choose, paintings of themselves in the shower. E-mails that go out from Summitas accounts to other servers are encrypted, and the site has a feature that automatically encrypts any message that has sensitive personal information (a Social Security number, a date of birth, etc.) in it. Anyone wanting to join the network has to be approved by the administrator.
Of course, no technology can eliminate the human factor. Many hacks are successful because people use passwords that are easy to figure out, or are tricked into giving them up. Summitas Chief Technology Officer Dan Gregerson says the firm tries to protect against this by allowing clients to create additional passwords for particularly sensitive documents, and by having what he describes as “sophisticated intrusion detection programs” constantly running to detect hacking attempts. The company is also exploring biometric features—at the moment, all that’s necessary to log on is a username and password. According to Wyman, though, the company’s clients haven’t shown much appetite for layers of security that make it slower or more complicated to access the site.
“With people of wealth, there has to be a balance between security and ease of use,” he says. In other words, they’re like the rest of us.