During the last few years, there's been a revolution in high-tech, high-security that affects virtually every business in the US from the Fortune 500 to any small business operation across the country. It's a new wave in better business practice that deploys the latest public key infrastructure (PKI) technology to thwart fraud every year. But don't panic if you missed the headlines. This rather quiet revolution has been staged in company mail centers and has transformed that most common of common business machines: the postage meter.


No, it's not your father's postage meter any longer. The days of crash-printing envelopes with the "eagle" postage-paid indicia are long gone. So, too, are the labor-intensive precautions needed to buy and secure postage. Today's technology is the result of an unprecedented cooperation between the U.S. Postal Service and postage meter manufacturers, as well as security experts and software engineers. It still churns out postage for over a million and a half large and small businesses every day. But it operates with a brain.


A postage meter manufacturer creating a high-tech, digitally secure meter requires a significant investment in the latest encryption technology, communications software and the secure infrastructure to handle the private key and public key aspects of the technology. It also requires deep cooperation with the Postal Service, one of the largest Federal agencies with a new mission to embrace technology and streamline costs.


Postal Service Backs High Security

In the early 1990s, the Postal Service realized that postage metering technology was being outpaced by innovations in scanning, copying and digital printing technologies available to the general public. While the annual $21 billion in postage meter funds offered a ripe target for counterfeiters, the relatively low-tech postage metering machines were vulnerable to tampering and lacked automated audit or control mechanisms that were becoming commonplace in other business areas.


In response, the USPS developed a framework of technology-based security features to protect its customers and itself in the new digital age. It launched a Postage Technology Management (PTM) program to oversee a technology platform that included security requirements, functional specifications and rules and regulations to make postage payment systems as secure as possible. According to Wayne Wilkerson, manager of Postal Technology Management, U.S. Postal Service, the platform developed by PTM "not only supports the $21 billion in postage revenues purchased by customers, it also enables continually evolving new postage payment solutions." Wilkerson explains, "The PTM technology platform protects revenue in three ways. Security of the postage metering devices and the susceptibility to tampering, the security of the postage mark (indicia) and its susceptibility to counterfeit; and management of information for audit and control purposes."


Because the PTM program was charged with approving postage products to ensure operational, financial and security integrity, it turned to postage meter manufacturers to bring its vision to life. The industry's long-established partnership with the Postal Service and its stake in the 1.5 million postage meters across North America made these vendors the logical choice to transition business mail centers some of the largest users of US mail to the digital age.


A major step toward digital meters came in 1996, when the Postal Service introduced its concept for the Information Based Indicia (IBI). The IBI replaced the old-fashioned machine-stamp with a digitally imprinted, specially encoded, two-dimensional barcode indicia. This 2D barcode gives each IBI a unique identifier, which can be read easily by Postal Service machines and workers to ensure its authenticity. Because IBI format requires high-resolution digital printing, postal meter manufacturers needed to adapt their meters to meet these specifications.


The IBI offered a platform that maximized security for postal funds. Because the indicia are digitally generated and unique, loading and managing postal funds via electronic communication can be extra secure and can be tracked more specifically. The Postal Service's ambitious goals required each manufacturer to develop an IT infrastructure to manage the digital signatures as well as the private and public keys for each machine.


As everyone knows, digital signatures and PKI provide the highest level of security for Internet transactions. A digital signature attaches a business' identity to a transaction using a unique numeric, time-stamped certificate. To thwart thieves, digital signatures use public-key cryptography to scramble the transaction before it's transmitted and de-code that transmission once it's received. The receiver has the "key" that verifies the signature and the authenticity of the sender. PKI has two elements: the public key and private key. The private key belongs solely to the digital signature's owner. The receiver holds the public key and uses it to de-code the transmission and verify the sender's identity online. "Digital and IBI meters are the most secure meter designs on the market today," says Wilkerson. "While all IBI meters are digital meters, not all digital meters are IBI meters. Only IBI meter designs are the ones currently being approved by PTM today."


To ensure that all this technology reached the corporate mail center, the PTM program office worked with meter manufacturers to develop a meter migration strategy that would effectively replace over time the older, mechanical postage meters with new, more secure postage meter technologies. These new machines would be developed by postage meter manufacturers to meet baseline security requirements. Since 1995, the migration strategy has retired 776,000 mechanical meters from service with other types of meters planned for migration in the near future. Digital print and IBI postage is the preferred technology in use for postage metering equipment.


"Because of these automation characteristics, the IBI supports the Postal Service Intelligent Mail objectives," Wilkerson adds. "Leveraging digital technology trends for postage meters expands opportunities for our customers and the Postal Service."


Ernst Holzmann is the worldwide director of Strategic Product Development for FP Mailing Solutions. For more information, visit www.fp-usa.com or call 800-956-6465.