Vendors get stamp of approval

A U.S. Postal Service program launched last week to make it possible for people to use their PCs to download, print and pay for postage online relies on a number of advanced technologies, including digital signature and public-key infrastructure.

USPS has worked for more than three years with several vendors to create the PC Postage program. Now that it is commercially available, USPS hopes it will become widely adopted, especially by people in small businesses and home offices.

USPS said the aim of the program is to help people cut down on the time they spend buying stamps as well as to increase the efficiency of the sorting process and control fraud.

USPS's chief role in the PC Postage program is to establish and enforce standards used by the program's vendors, but that was no small task, said Roy Gordon, program director of the Information Based Indicia Program in USPS' Metering Technology Group.

"The technologies being introduced today represent the most secure technologies to date that the Postal Service has required in order to be able to store postage and print postage," Gordon said.

The indicia that is printed - strips of black dots that create no pattern discernible to the eye - is a unique digital signature that encodes the price of the stamp, the date, a number identifying the sender and other information.

Because each of the digital signatures is one of a kind, the Postal Service will be able to detect fraud if someone tries to use a digital signature more than once. The strip of dots also includes authentication that ensures that none of the data encoded on the strip was tampered with, Gordon said.

Another piece of information included in the digital signature links it to the address on the envelope and is designed to speed sorting. That piece of data is supplied by the Address Management System, a technology the Postal Service uses to convert an address into a bar code that can be read by a sorter.

The integration of AMS into the PC Postage program means the bar code is printed at the same time as the postage, and the letter enters the mail stream with the code already on it for faster sorting, Gordon said.

In the preliminary tests of the products, USPS checked the operational stability of the products, made sure the amount of stamps the customer paid for were delivered and reviewed the security architecture, which was supplied by Cylink Inc.

Cylink provides a PKI that is designed to accommodate millions of digital certificates, said Gene Carozzo, a spokesman for Cylink. In a process transparent to the user, PKI checks the certificates against registration authorities to validate that each device used to print the postage is registered.

"It's verification that the device being used is the device that has downloaded the postage and has paid for it," Carozzo said.

USPS announced that two of the four companies that have participated in the beta tests, E-Stamp Corp. and Stamps. com Inc., have passed the rigorous security requirements, clearing the way for them to begin selling their products in stores and at their Web sites.

"Small businesses and home offices are eagerly looking forward to buying postage via the Internet," said Patricia Gibert, vice president of retail for USPS. "Customers see it as we do: an opportunity to create efficiency, save time, reduce cost and increase their convenience."

About 8 million small businesses make up the small business/home office market, according to Gibert, and a considerable percentage of them conduct their business online. PC Postage will reduce the number of trips to the post office and the need to stand in line, but it is not free.

People who choose the E-Stamp solution will have to buy storage hardware that costs about $50 as well as software, and E-Stamp users will have to pay a 10 percent service charge every time they order stamps.

Stamps.com's solution involves free software that a customer can download from Stamps.com's World Wide Web site. Monthly fees depend on the amount of stamps downloaded, but the charge is roughly 10 percent.

The cost of the stamps is the same as at the post office, and all types of stamps can be purchased.

USPS has been working with two other companies, Pitney Bowes Inc., which offers a hardware/software combination solution and a software-only solution, and Neopost, whose solution is software-based. The products are in the beta test phase.

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