Electronic postmark trials focus on date, time stamps

In its first foray into electronic commerce the U.S. Postal Service started market trials this month for an electronic postmarking service that will verify that the date and time electronic-mail software places on electronic documents are authentic.

During the trial government and private-sector organizations that rely on the authenticity of electronic documents will send documents to a private contractor hired for the trial to be "stamped" with a date and time postmark and to certify the identity of the sender. Unlike date and time indicators on e-mail documents however USPS' electronic postmarks cannot be changed.

"When users send an e-mail the system puts a time and date stamp on it " said Fred Macondray vice president of engineering and product development at Aegis Star Corp. which is conducting the trial for USPS. "But this is the first time&hellip users have verification that this mail was put in at a certain time and this is the content."

The initial trial expected to last 60 days will involve government medical and legal organizations that USPS declined to name.

"The market test is designed to allow us to validate features users will find valuable and determine whether we're in the ballpark on pricing " said Ken Ceglowski manager of electronic commerce services at USPS.

The industries represented in the market test are those most likely to be interested in the service once it is available next year assuming the trial is a success he added.

Possible Role in EDI

Agencies seem interested in finding out more about the service. "I could see this as a key component of [electronic data interchange] for responding to bids applying for jobs by a certain date and making payments " said Ron Hack director of the Office of Systems and Telecommunications Management at the Commerce Department. He added however that the department has not yet "identified the need for it."

Although USPS is late in rolling out the electronic postmark service it should find a market in the government and commercial sectors especially as personal electronic commerce such as home banking becomes popular said John Pescatore senior consultant at Trusted Information Services.

"When we get going on personal electronic commerce we need some way of authenticating you are who you say you are " Pescatore said. The agency's challenge he added is to provide a service that works with all platforms.

During the electronic postmark test users will be charged 22 cents for a document of 50K or less. "As the payload gets bigger the price gets bigger " Ceglowski said.

The price does not include fees that a value-added network or Internet provider charges to send the document to USPS.

Under the electronic postmark system a user sends an e-mail he wishes to verify to Aegis Star which stores the document in a mailbox and also archives a copy through its AT&T Easy Archiving Service. Aegis Star then electronically postmarks the message with the time and date digitally signs it and sends it to the intended e-mail recipient.

When the recipient receives the message the USPS mail reader authenticates the digital signature and the contents of the message to prove that the document has not been tampered with.

USPS is the only organization issuing an electronic postmark Ceglowski said.

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