USPS poised to offer digital certificates

The U.S. Postal Service is ready to begin providing digital signatures that will let customers electronically sign and encrypt documents for secure delivery via the Internet.

If widely adopted, digital signatures could dramatically increase public confidence in the security and privacy of the Internet, opening the way for much wider use of the Internet to conduct financial transactions and transmit sensitive data.

The digital signatures will initially be available only to federal employees, but USPS hopes to eventually offer them to the public, said Stephen Kearney, USPS senior vice president for corporate and business development.

In mid-March, the Postal Service plans to make the signatures available to government workers through 46 East Coast post offices. The first users are expected to be employees at renal dialysis centers who process claims for the Health Care Financing Administration.

The Social Security Administration also wants digital signatures to protect eligibility information it receives from states, Kearney said.

If the digital signatures are available to the public, as USPS officials hope, potential uses may range from transmitting legal documents to sending union votes over the Internet.

To buy a digital signature, Postal customers would enroll online, receive a form in the mail, go to a local post office with a photo identification and two other forms of ID, and then receive an e-mail with instructions on how to download the digital signature. The signature could then be stored in a smart card on a computer hard drive. The Postal Service would serve as the certification authority, assuring that the holder of the digital signature has adequately proven his or her identity.

Digital signatures serve as the electronic equivalent of a handwritten signature, asserting the authenticity of an electronic message. But they also do more. When applied to an electronic document, the signatures encrypt the document so that it cannot be changed or read by anyone except a recipient with the proper key to decipher it.

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