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Postal Service starts digital authentication

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The U.S. Postal Service Wednesday announced a new service that will issue digital signatures on smart cards through post offices across the country using "in-person proofing" as part of the process.

The new service will expand on the USPS's existing NetPost.Certified program, which was created for government agencies to secure and authenticate electronic correspondence using smart cards and smart card readers, USPS officials said.

The new service will be initially available only to government employees at 46 post offices on the East Coast. However, the USPS plans to eventually make it available commercially, beginning in the 1,400 post offices around the country where U.S. citizens can apply for passports before rolling it out in the more than 38,000 post offices countrywide.

Stephen Kearney, senior vice president of corporate business development for the USPS, detailed the new service in a speech at the Global Internet Summit 2001 here.

"This will help bring the use of e-mail to a higher level," Kearney said. "We're not inventing any new technology, but we think we are unique in being able to tie the pieces together."

The "in-person proofing" procedure will be part of the infrastructure that will create trust in e-mail transfers, by ensuring that the data sent is from the person who sent it, that it wasn't tampered with and that it includes a timestamp. Kearney said the service will be the first in the U.S. to issue digital certificates after a face-to-face authentication, which USPS sees as a role it can plan better than its competitors, given its presence across the country and its staff of employees trained to serve the public and handle various transactions.

A customer begins the process of applying for a digital signature by registering online. USPS mails back a form to the customer's home address, and the customer must then go to the post office with a photo ID and one other document, such as a utility bill, for the "in-person proofing." The customer then will receive an e-mail notification on how to download a digital certificate, which can reside on a smart card or on the hard drive of the customer's computer, USPS officials said.

There is no charge for the digital certificate, but the USPS currently charges 50 cents per transaction for government agencies using the NetPost.Certified service, said Bob Krause, vice president of e-commerce for the USPS.

Krause said the USPS currently collects $17 billion annually from the traditional mailing of paper bills and payments, a revenue source that is declining. The service is looking for ways to replace that, and it believes that about 10% of the estimated 62 billion transactions that take place annually with the federal government could benefit from the new digital signature service.

A company that receives payments from the federal government, a healthcare clinic that bills the U.S. Health Care Finance Agency, is an example of the type of organization that can benefit from the use of the new digital certificate service, Krause said. The paper-based process these organizations must go through to receive their payments currently is complex and often delayed.

The IDG News Service is a Network World affiliate.

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