USPS E-Postmark could catch on

SAN FRANCISCO'The Postal Service's commercial partner in its Electronic-Postmark program is stepping up marketing of the electronic service.

AuthentiDate Inc. of New York created a new marketing division late last year to promote the service it developed for USPS. The move followed a decision by Microsoft Corp. to incorporate the postmark into its Office 2003 and XP software, making the service available without custom integration into an application.

Microsoft is expected to announce soon that it will support the service on Office 2000 as well.

Early adopters of the technology so far have been in the financial services and legal sectors, with some attention coming from government agencies, said Adam Hoffman, account executive for AuthentiDate.

Hoffman was at the RSA Security Conference this week, promoting the service on the trade show floor.

'I see a huge opportunity in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries,' where the postmarks could be used to authenticate and track data needed to prove intellectual property rights.

The Social Security Administration is the largest user of the service so far, incorporating the postmark in a handful of applications that are part of its Secure Transport Service, which involves some electronic filing. Indiana's Bureau of Motor Vehicles also is using the service.

Users can set up an Electronic-Postmark account at www.uspspm.com. The service requires a digital certificate. Customers can use an existing certificate, or can download one from GeoTrust when the account is created. The only cost is the price of the postmark, which starts at 80 cents each in groups of 25, and decreases with volume.

Once the account is set up, a Microsoft plug-in can be downloaded, and the USPS logo is added to the Office tool bar. A free software developer kit also can be downloaded to incorporate the postmark in other applications.

The user is prompted to digitally sign the document when the icon is clicked. A hashing algorithm creates a digital fingerprint of the document. The fingerprint then is time- and date-stamped on a USPS server using a National Institute of Standards and Technology time source. The server returns a postmark with the USPS logo to the user for embedding in the document.

USPS keeps a copy of the hash for seven years in a data center operated by AuthentiDate. The postmarked document cannot be changed without altering the hash, which will invalidate the document.

The legal weight of the digital signature could be enhanced by the use of the USPS service, which means the signer has in effect made a statement of identity to a federal agency.
The Postal Service never has the text of the document being postmarked, only the hash, and the document cannot be reconstructed from the hash.

Hoffman said the lack of up-front costs for the service and the potential for time and money savings by eliminating the need for traditional postage or overnight delivery are making the service an easy sale among small users.

'When you talk to attorneys, nontechnical people get this right away,' he said. 'With this type of application I like to talk to the business people rather than the IT people.'

Establishing an account to use with Microsoft Office can be done in a matter of minutes. Integrating the service in another application often can be done in a matter of weeks, Hoffman said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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