Cradle to Grave

Cradle to Grave

SSA works out the details of doing business without paper

BY WILLIAM JACKSON | GCN STAFF

The Social Security Administration is developing an electronic alternative to first-class mail for gathering sensitive information from state agencies.


SSA's Sandy Spencer, left, Aaron Knight, Bunny Burnett and Kim Mitchel have set up the electronic equivalent of certified mail for secure information exchanges with states.
But SSA is not abandoning the Postal Service. USPS' NetPost.Certified service works with a public-key infrastructure to transfer data between SSA and such entities as state prisons and vital statistics offices.

'We now have what I consider to be very viable pilots up and running,' said Kim Mitchel, deputy associate commissioner in SSA's Telecommunications and Systems Operations Office. 'What we've built is an end-to-end process.'

It includes strong authentication of both sender and receiver and certification of delivery to both parties, as well as secure transfer across the Internet.

'It is not intended to replace e-mail,' said Maurice Haff, chief technology officer of WareOnEarth Communications Inc. of Annandale, Va., whose HyperShip Trusted Information Exchange is part of the system. 'It fulfills the role of first-class mail for business processes.'

The government-to-government exchange, now in final pilot, is the first step on the road toward electronic service delivery. The next step is government-to-business applications, then government-to-citizen, Mitchel said.

'We're trying to develop an infrastructure that is application-independent and data format-independent,' she said.

Social Security gathers birth and death records from the states and also keeps tabs on who is in prison.

'People who are incarcerated are not entitled to benefits,' Mitchel said. The prison information is time-sensitive because stopping benefits quickly saves money.

'Many [prisons] do it with paper,' Mitchel said. 'Some do it with tape and diskette, but the process can take several months.'

To handle the states' information on tape and disk, SSA already had a back-end process but wanted to speed delivery without compromising security and reliability.

About 30 months ago the agency began experimenting with secure transport. In a second pilot, it added the Postal Service's electronic postmark.

Easy and reliable

Birth and death records are now accepted online from Delaware and Virginia, and prison records from Maryland, Michigan, New York and Ohio.

'This has been a fantastic project,' said Link Beam, a systems analyst at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Beam said the department 'jumped at the opportunity' to participate in the pilots. 'After the minor trials and tribulations that go with any new application, we were quite pleased with the ease and reliability of the data transfers,' he said.

Digital security

WareOnEarth began developing its HyperShip application about three years ago, and the Postal Service announced it as a component of NetPost.Certified in January.

HyperShip uses 128-bit encryption to secure data over a peer-to-peer connection, which can be a dedicated link or the Internet.

The process begins with a digital certificate issued by the Postal Service on a smart card. Users can register online but must verify identity in person to receive the certificate. Relatively few post offices are set up to verify identity and issue certificates, so sometimes a postal employee must go to the user's office for verification.

After the smart card authenticates the sender to the HyperShip software, the application compresses and encrypts the files using the recipient's public key. Then the entire package is digitally signed with the sender's private key and encrypted a second time using a key issued for the system by the Postal Service.

An encrypted datagram informs the recipient a package is waiting to be sent. When the datagram is decrypted and accepted by the recipient with the proper key, a connection is established to move the data.

After the package has been decrypted and the signature verified, the recipient digitally signs a receipt and sends it to the NetPost.Certified server, which stamps it with an electronic postmark and sends certified copies to each party.

'What we've done is replicated the paper process of certified mail,' Haff said. 'For this, the Postal Service charges 50 cents per transaction.'

SSA is the first federal user of the system. 'Many agencies are not prepared on the back end to process incoming electronic transactions,' Haff said.

The basic requirement is a PC running Microsoft Windows 98. HyperShip will work with Windows 95, but supporting a smart-card reader for authentication requires Win98's second edition. The rest of the setup depends on the size and type of files being transferred.

The prison and vital statistics pilots 'are representative of a lot of applications,' Mitchel said. She would like to see the program expand, possibly to funeral directors who usually file death certificates with the states. But scaling up will require modifications.

Currently, the certificates used on each end are issued to individuals. 'If that person happens not to be there, the data sits,' she said. 'So we're starting to address the need for an electronic corporate seal' under which individual certificates could be issued.

'This is an area that still needs a lot of work,' she said. 'We think there is some light at the end of the tunnel, but we're not na've. We know it's a long road.'

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