Stamps for cyberspace

U.S. Postal Service tests a digital postmark that may be protected by Federal postal laws and become the standard for first-class correspondence in cyberspace.

3 min read
Looking for email with the Federal protection of regular mail? Sign up with the U.S. Postal Service.

America's letter carriers are testing a digital postmark that may become the standard for first-class correspondence in cyberspace. Six companies from across the country have already signed for the "Electronic Postmarking Service" a limited trial which got underway in August.

Reasoning that the medical, legal, banking, and government sectors are four groups with ample need for secure email and document storage services, Postal Service officials are looking for about a dozen companies in those industries for the pilot program, which was originally scheduled to last through October, but will continue through the end of the year.

"We are trying to hit companies in these areas to test our hypothesis," said Paul Raines, program manager for electronic commerce services at the U.S. Postal Service. He pointed out that the new postmark will show when mail has been tampered with by hackers or has been scrambled due to technical problems while in transit.

Raines said the service will launch nationwide sometime next year, after some fine-tuning and the addition of several new features. Two features the post office plans to include are time-specific delivery, which allows the sender to delay posting a message until a specified time, and will provide return receipts.

While online security is currently an industry buzzword and promises to grow into a multibillion dollar market, Postal Service officials said they are not looking to corner the market. Instead, they see the postmark as a way for senders to establish a public and verifiable history for a document, store it the Post Service database for at-will retrieval.

"We certainly don't want to be a monopoly in this business," Raines said.

For the trial, the Postal Service is working with Aegis Star a Palo Alto, California-based commercial electronic document and archiving company to post and store the email using a POP3 client that interfaces with standard messaging software. Another California-based company, Cylink, is supplying a Windows-based security software. Aegis Star also offers free authentication software that can be downloaded from the company's Web site, the company said.

However, Raines said the operation will be transferred from Aegis to the Postal Service once the trial is complete.

"Once we approve it as a postal service we want to bring it inside the postal environment," said Raines. He said the Post Office would need to expand its server infrastructure, but has the staff and telephone lines to handle the job, at least initially.

The postmark assigns email with a "digital signature." Each electronic message is translated into a very long single number as a "fingerprint," and then digitally signed with a private "key" to authenticate the integrity of the messages. Each piece of mail receives a number corresponding to the date and time received by the Postal Service's server. Special software or hardware is not required, and is as easy to use as unsecured email.

Companies participating in the trial receive confidential account identification numbers that work like credit cards to automatically credit the account holder for each transaction. But, the mail does not go directly to the post office. Instead, email is sent to an Aegis Star address. The company then stamps it with the date, Greenwich Mean Time, and a digital signature before sending it on its way. Just like the unsecured variety, the secured email can be sent to many addresses at once and will be stored in a database for future retrieval by the sender.

The Post Office will charge 22 cents each for files up to 50K, with prices increasing according to document size. The Post Office is currently conducting the archiving on optical disks and users will pay 40 cents per kilobyte for retrieval.