It is quickly becoming the norm for Australia's largest banks to offer discounts on or completely free computer security software to boost internet banking security. The question is, why?
84 per cent of Australians use home PCs to conduct online banking.
For starters, it would appear that Australians already have good levels of security when it comes to internet banking. A recent survey by Australia's Computer Emergency Response Team (AusCERT) found that 94 per cent of 1,000 locals quizzed used up-to-date antivirus software, 86 per cent used a firewall and 80 per cent used anti-spyware software.
However, National Australia Bank's head of retail banking, Tim Cullen, gave a very different picture of the nation's online banking habits at a recent banking security conference, suggesting the discounts his group had offered were a way to boost current low levels of Australians that used internet banking services.
"There's no doubt that the marketing department sees security as a competitive advantage," he said. "You only need to look at the awareness of customers. Look at internet banking use versus access. 30 percent use [internet banking] while 70 per cent have access to the internet, so security is one of the major obstacles."
Rival Westpac Bank, which has some 200,000 customers that use online banking, declined to comment when asked whether its own offer had anything to do with competitive advantage.
"We encourage our customers to take appropriate steps to protect their computer online, and installing and maintaining appropriate firewall and antivirus products is certainly something we strongly encourage... Offering this unique deal with PC Tools is one way to encourage customers to take these steps," a spokesperson for the bank said.
According to technology analysts, the security offers come at a time when major banks have admitted that their technologies are incapable of delivering their needs into the future.
There's no doubt that the marketing department sees security as a competitive advantage
NAB executive Tim Cullen
The poor state of banking technology partially explains why last week technology analysts welcomed NAB's and Commonwealth Bank's plans to overhaul their core banking systems, and criticised banks' consumer-facing Web technologies.
"From early leaders in online services 10 years ago, the banks are now clear laggards... Where leading online service providers are adapting weekly what they offer online, you will rarely see banks update anything in three months," S2 Intelligence managing director Bruce McCabe said.
Intelligent Business Research Services security analyst, James Turner gave another explanation.
"Delivering subsidised antivirus software is just one step on a roadmap towards the banks providing a secure interface which they manage, for example a managed virtual application. This puts them back in control of something they are responsible for," he said.
But not every Australian bank has used security software to gain a so-called competitive advantage.
While ING Direct USA recently offered its customers a product by Trusteer called Rapport, which works by creating a "secure pipe" between the PC and the bank's servers, ING Direct Australia has chosen not to replicate the offer for its Australian customers, and has instead preferred to educate customers.
ANZ Bank also has not offered its customers discounts on security software. A spokesperson told ZDNet.com.au that ANZ "always encourages its customers to have an up-to-date version of antivirus software on their PCs" but has limited that support to recommending products by Trend Micro and McAfee.
NAB has struck deals with PC Tools and Check Point.
NAB offers a 50 per cent discount on Check Point's ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite, which includes: firewall, anti-spyware and antivirus, privacy protection, email security, phishing and spam filters, instant messaging protection and parental control, wireless PC protection and spy site blocking.
Non-NAB customers would normally fork out AU$99.95 for a one year licence, but NAB's discount means the cost is slashed to just AU$49.95. NAB has organised a two-year deal too, bringing the cost from AU$130 down to AU$89.95.
The PC Tools Spyware Doctor offer detects, removes and blocks spyware and adware threats. Non-NAB customers would normally pay AU$49.95 for a one year licence for three computers, but NAB customers get a 34 per cent discount, bringing it to AU$33.95.
Westpac has trumped other banks with its offer. Westpac has offered three PC Tools products free for 12 months: Spyware Doctor with antivirus; Privacy Guardian, which cleans out browser internet histories; as well as a PC Tools' Firewall Plus 3.0 for Windows.
Privacy Guardian 4.1 for Windows normally costs AU$49.95, as does Spyware Doctor. PC Tools' current version of Firewall Plus is 4.0, however, and Westpac's deal only includes Firewall Plus 3.0, which is available for free anyway, so there's no real discount on the firewall.
CBA was the first to go down this path, and had struck a deal with CA to provide its Internet Security Suite Plus 2008 at a 50 per cent discount to its customers. Normally AU$69.95, CBA customers are charged just $34.95. CA's suite includes antivirus, anti-spyware, firewall, anti-spam, anti-phishing and backup software.
St George has offered its customers a 25 per cent discount on Check Point's ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite 2008. A one year licence for three users if you're a St George customer costs AU$74.36 instead of AU$99.99 or Zone Alarm Pro firewall and privacy protection for one user for AU$37.46.