Electronic Postmarks Promoted

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A new software plug-in from the United States Post Service and Microsoft is designed to provide the same kind of security for digital documents as a sealed envelope and postmark does for paper mail.

The Electronic Postmark, or EPM, is an extension to Microsoft's Office 2003, launched Tuesday. It provides a way for the product's broad user base to sign and secure their documents in a way that is legally binding, according to Chuck Chamberlain, manager of business development at the Postal Service.

The program uses technology developed by Microsoft and content security company AuthentiDate. It allows a document's creator to save a unique time- and date-stamped record based on the file's exact content in an EPM repository maintained by the USPS, according to AuthentiDate.

At any time over the next seven years, subsequent recipients can check a document against the version stored in the repository to verify its authenticity, AuthentiDate says.

The EPM technology complies with standards set in the U.S. Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-Sign) Act of 2000, which gave legal status to digital signatures. However, without a case to test the validity of the technology, there is no way to know whether courts will accept EPMs, Chamberlain says.

How It Works

To use the service, customers must run either Microsoft Office XP or Microsoft Office 2003 and download a special Office EPM extension developed by the USPS and AuthentiDate, according to Richard Reichgut, AuthentiDate vice president of marketing.

Customers must also set up an EPM account through the USPS Web site and have a valid digital certificate to sign the documents, Chamberlain says.

Certificate authority GeoTrust offers digital certificates for use with the program, but certificates from other authorities can be used as well, he adds.

The Office extension adds an EPM toolbar to Word with options for applying electronic postmarks to documents, checking the EPM on a document, and managing the USPS EPM account, Reichgut says. Clicking the Apply EPM button launches a step-by-step process to lock the document's content, sign it with the user's digital certificate, and place a record of the signed document in the USPS EPM repository. Once the document is signed, a USPS EPM logo is affixed to the document indicating it is signed and its content is valid.

For documents that need to be signed by multiple parties such as contracts and nondisclosure agreements, the document's author can attach multiple EPMs that must be signed by each party. The USPS EPM ensures the document's content is not altered as it is passed from party to party, AuthentiDate says.

Through their USPS account, customers can purchase blocks of EPMs just as they would buy blocks of stamps, he says.

The per-postmark price will range from 80 cents for a block of 25 EPMs to 10 cents per EPM for a block of 1 million or more electronic postmarks, he says. Subsequent readers are not charged, and Office 97 and 2000 users can verify EPM marked documents although they cannot generate new electronic postmarks, Reichgut says.

The Microsoft Office extension streamlines what was a loosely developed effort to bring EPM technology into the mainstream, according to the Post Office's Chamberlain.

The USPS and AuthentiDate offered only a software development kit that interested parties could download and use to build their own EPM plug-ins. The Office plug-in has already been integrated with Microsoft Office 2003 and tested by the USPS, Chamberlain says.

"Previously, buying an EPM was like buying an engine, whereas now you can buy the whole car," he says.

Only a handful of organizations have tried out the EPM technology, largely because of the integration hurdles, Chamberlain adds.

With a new "ready to use" plug-in for Office, the Postal Service hopes that EPM adoption will pick up. Chamberlain says companies may begin to see EPM as a replacement for slow and costly courier and fax services, especially in organizations that handle a high volume of sensitive documents such law offices and government agencies.

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