Postal Service gives digital signatures a dry run in-house

Through the award of a small contract to create electronic
forms, the Postal Service hopes to learn a thing or two about digital signatures.


Under a $692,000 contract, the service will use software from F3 Software Corp. to
automate hundreds of paper forms used internally by the service. The electronic forms will
bear digital signatures that meet the federal Digital Signature Standard issued by the
Commerce Department last year.


The Postal Service is one of the first federal agencies to use the DSS algorithms,
developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to encrypt signatures on
documents. It plans to use the technology not only internally but also to act as the
certifier of secured electronic communications commercially and for other agencies [GCN,
July 31, Page 90]
.


Under a previous contract, USPS used F3's Pro Designer software to design more than 500
paper forms now in use. With the new corporate license, the service will use the
Burlington, Mass., company's Design and Mapping software to convert these templates to
electronic formats. F3 Fill will allow these forms to be filled out and processed
electronically with digitally encrypted signatures.


"We're the only ones I know who are using F3 Fill with DSS," said Paul
Ranier, program manager for USPS' Electronic Commercial Services.


"Our objective here is to streamline a lot of administrative activity," said
Bob Stephens, manager of applied applications technology. But, he added, the project also
will give USPS "some practical experience in how electronic forms need to be handled
in a corporate environment."


With the F3 Design and Mapping package, a point-and-click interface is used to
establish attributes within each field, and a proprietary form scripting language is used
to build in links between fields and with outside databases.


The package allows standard portions of each form to be filled out automatically as the
form is called up on a screen, guides the user to the appropriate fields and allows
calculations to be carried out by the computer. The encrypted signature ensures that
defined fields are not altered once the document is signed.


The package runs under Microsoft Corp. Windows and MS-DOS as well as Apple Computer
Inc.'s Mac OS.


USPS began evaluating vendor proposals in 1993, choosing F3 over rivals JetForm Corp.
of Waltham, Mass., and DelRina Corp. of Toronto. Incorporation of the NIST standard and
the ability to create an interface to the service's electronic mail system, which runs
Lotus Development Corp.'s cc:Mail, sold the Postal Service on F3, Stephens said.


"We look at this as an entry into electronic work flow management," he said.


Some modification of the software will be needed, Stephens said. "The intent is to
make it off-the-shelf, but when you get into e-mail integration you get into a degree of
modification with the corporate system."


The typical Postal Service platform consists of PCs that run Windows and are connected
by a LAN to a Novell Inc. file server. The LANs are connected via TCP/IP WANs. The system
will support almost universal distribution of automated forms as they are developed,
Stephens said.


"We are such a widely distributed organization that there are always going to be
pockets where there will continue to be paper forms,' Stephens said. "But that is not
necessarily a show-stopper."

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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