USPS launches certified e-mail

The U.S. Postal Service rolled out a new service Tuesday that makes it possible to transmit sensitive personal information to federal agencies in digital form with assurance that it has not been viewed or altered.

The service, NetPost.Certified, is the equivalent of certified electronic mail, said Chris Laidlaw of IBM Corp.

IBM is one of several companies that worked with the Postal Service to develop the secure electronic transmission capability. Both the sender and receiver of NetPost.Certified messages receive electronic certificates certifying that their file has been received and has not been tampered with.

Such guarantees of privacy and security are necessary for agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the Health Care Financing Administration to shift thousands of forms, files and other information they now mail on paper to digital form for transmission over the Internet.

For the time being, NetPost.Certified will be available only to government agencies and individuals such as doctors who send information to government agencies.

Eventually, Postal Service officials say they intend to offer the service to the public.

NetPost.Certified has the advantages of being low-cost and providing immediate delivery while retaining the privacy and security of traditional mailed documents, said Dan Curtis, a vice president of WareOnEarth Communications Inc., which developed the data exchange portion of NetPost.Certified.

Data sent over NetPost can be as varied as letters, government forms, digital X-rays, patent photographs and highly detailed scientific photographs. To send or receive information over the system, users must have special smart cards that serve as digital identification cards and digital signatures.

Data is compressed and encrypted for fast, secure transmission. Even large files, such as a 10M digital X-ray, can be transmitted in about two minutes, Curtis said. A receipt issued to both sender and receiver verifies that data has been delivered and remained secure.

The Postal Service charges 50 cents per transmission to use NetPost.Certified. The price is the same regardless of the amount of data transmitted, and the revenue is to be split among the Postal Service and several corporate partners, including IBM and AT&T.

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