European boffins aim to build online trust

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European boffins aim to build online trust

Frameworks for the online business world.

European researchers have unveiled plans to develop technology that allows firms to build trust and improve relationships in the virtual world.

TrustCoM, a project funded by the European Union's Information Society Technologies research program, aims to tackle the problem of establishing trust between organisations online, and ensuring the security of digital transactions and electronic business processes. 

Using open source service-oriented architecture tools in a generic framework in a distributed environment, the project aims to address the trust, security and contract management issues that hinder the widespread creation of dynamic virtual organisations.

"The problem is convincing companies that the benefits outweigh the costs and calming their concerns about exposing themselves online," said TrustCoM coordinator Santi Ristol, head of the Innovation Unit at IT services company Atos Origin. 

Ristol explained that, for any virtual organisation to work, the participants have to make at least part of their internal business processes open to each other.

While he concedes that concerns about opening up internal operations and private data are less of an issue between long-established partners, it becomes a major issue in the case of new or evolving partnerships, or associations that are meant to exist briefly, in some cases for only a single transaction.

"What we are doing in TrustCoM is developing the technology to build trust into online business transactions," said Ristol. "If we can prove to businesses that the technology exists and works then we will be able to overcome some of their concerns."

TrustCoM's technology has been made possible by the flexibility of service-oriented architectures as a means of software development.

The tools being developed by the project cover the qualification of companies as a means to select suppliers and partners, and a system to document and monitor contractual relationships and establish criteria about what all participants in the business chain should do.

It will also provide the means to identify partners which fail to fulfil their obligations.

The framework is designed to be flexible enough to adapt to the virtual organisation being reconfigured with the entry of new members or the exit of old ones.

It will also maintain security for participants by ensuring that partners have the ability to share only the processes and data they need, and no more.

"As yet there is no culture of collaboration online," said Ristol. "For that culture to develop, and for companies to start trusting each other in the digital domain, there need to be concrete examples of virtual organisations that work well, produce clear benefits for the participants and are not exposed to undue security risks."

However, someone must be a pioneer and take up the challenge, creating what Ristol describes as a "chicken and egg situation".

TrustCoM's framework will be deployed in two trials later this year and the group hopes that these demonstrations will prove that secure, trustworthy online business is possible.

In one of the trials, TrustCoM's prototype framework and tools will be used by aircraft manufacturer BAE Systems and its parts suppliers to manage and automate supply chain processes.

In another trial, the technology will be implemented to aggregate internet services for mobile users in the e-learning domain.

Ristol noted, however, that "much more needs to be done" before the technology is mature enough to be deployed on a wide scale, while business and legal challenges, which are also being studied by the project, need to be addressed.

"Companies have to rethink their traditional business models if they are to take advantage of the efficiency gains provided by virtual organisations," he said.

"Legal issues also have to be ironed out, especially as most legislation today covers paper contracts not digital ones."

Ristol believes it is likely that the project's technology partners, among them Microsoft, IBM and SAP, will use components of the TrustCoM framework rather than the framework as a whole to enhance their existing tools or even develop new software.

All of the tools will be available online, probably on SourceForge.net, under open source licences before the end of this year, Ristol said.
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