Breathing new life into the e-postmark

Postal Service's digital proofing business rubs some the wrong way

After several years of disappointing performance, the Postal Service is planning a business-to-business marketing campaign to promote its Electronic Postmark online service. USPS' commercial partner in the program, AuthentiDate Inc. of New York, will conduct the campaign.

This fresh push comes not only in the wake of lagging results but also in the face of resistance from the commercial sector. At least one company insists the Postal Service's initiative is flawed and competes with its own services. It's the type of complaint more agencies are likely to face as they use the Internet to serve citizens.

The USPS EPM service was launched in 2003 to provide digital authentication, time stamping and proof of delivery for electronic documents. The Postal Service has not released figures for the electronic service, but Leo Campbell, USPS program manager for EPM, said that revenues in the first seven months of fiscal 2005 equal those for all of fiscal 2004.

'Business has been growing,' Campbell said. Is the business where USPS would like it to be? 'No. Absolutely not.'

Users can set up an Electronic Postmark account at www.usps.com. The service requires a digital certificate for the sender, who can either use an existing certificate or download one from GeoTrust Inc. of Needham, Mass. The only cost is the price of the postmark, which starts at 80 cents each in groups of 25 and decreases with volume.

Users download a Microsoft plug-in that adds the USPS logo to the Office tool bar. (A free software developer kit also is available to incorporate the postmark in other applications.) The user is prompted to digitally sign the document when the USPS icon is clicked. A hashing algorithm creates a digital fingerprint of the document, and the fingerprint is time- and date-stamped on a USPS server. The server then returns a postmark with the USPS logo to the user for embedding in the document.

After all this, the document itself is sent as an e-mail attachment. USPS does not have access to the postmarked document but keeps a copy of the hash for seven years in a data center operated by AuthentiDate. The document cannot be changed without altering the hash, which would invalidate the document. In addition, the document cannot be reconstructed from the hash.

In short, the service protects documents against tampering, ensures authenticity and provides a legal e-mail trail. By using the USPS service, people add legal weight to their digital signatures because the signer has, in effect, made a statement of identity to a federal entity.

That's nice, but...
In rolling out its electronic service, USPS has stepped on a few toes and had trouble generating user interest. United Parcel Service filed a complaint with the Postal Rate Commission in 1999 when the Postal Service rolled out its Post Electronic Courier Service, PostECS, which relied on a secure Web server for document handling and used e-mail for notification. UPS complained that PostECS was unfair competition with its similar service. That complaint was dismissed in 2002 after the Postal Service pulled the plug on PostECS for lack of customers.

Now a similar complaint of unfair competition is pending before the Postal Rate Commission. That complaint, filed in February 2004 by DigiStamp Inc. of Colleyville, Texas, alleges that 'the USPS uses its monopoly government position to subsidize unfair competitive ventures against free enterprise,' and that the money-losing program is 'financed by patrons of traditional postal services.'

Essentially, DigiStamp claims that EPM illegally competes with its own commercial time-stamp services and asked the commission to reject EPM. The commission is considering a Postal Service motion to dismiss the complaint.

DigiStamp CEO Rick Borgers also claims that EPM is technically flawed and that the service's proof of receipt can be spoofed.

According to Borgers, any recipient of a document sent through EPM can insert the e-mail address of another recipient in the receipt form, generating a false notice to the sender that the document has been received and opened.

'I can make the Postal Service say that whoever I choose received it,' Borgers said.

Campbell acknowledged this weakness and said it is the result of a decision to build the service to the lowest common denominator for authentication. Digital certificates can be used with EPM to authenticate the identity of recipients opening a document, but they are not required because they are not yet universally used.

'As more people invoke certificates, they will work securely,' Campbell said. 'For now, we design[ed] the system so that the greatest number of people could use it.'

The address-spoofing exploit is not fatal to EPM, officials said. It does not affect time-stamps or the hashing process used to authenticate the contents of the document being sent, and the spoof can be detected in the audit trail in AuthentiDate's servers, said operations manager Hicham Kabbaj.

Campbell said USPS is focusing on three commercial markets for the early adoption of the service: the legal profession, financial services and health care administration. The marketing campaign will include both online and print advertisements in business publications that that target these early adopters, said O'Connell Benjamin, AuthentiDate's vice president of products and technology.

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