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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 15:37 GMT


Sci/Tech

Royal Mail posts e-commerce first

ViaCode - a new Trusted Third Party service from the Royal Mail

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The UK's Royal Mail has launched the first communication service in its 350-year history that does not involve the traditional letter.


Richard Dykes explains Viacode
ViaCode is a new system for sending data over the Internet that could replace sending documents by couriers or the regular post.

It is one of a host of technologies being developed to increase confidence in the Net as a means of doing business.

'Best of both worlds'

"Now businesses can have the best of both worlds by combining the Royal Mail's 350-year-old reputation for trust in delivering mail with the Internet's global capability for handling messages, complex documents and commercial transactions," the Royal Mail's managing director, Richard Dykes told a news conference.

Research suggests that three out of four UK businesses are deterred from using the Net because of worries about trust and security.

Mr Dykes said users were not certain who they were dealing with, messages risked interception and lacked the proof of a signature.

ViaCode would scramble data with 128-bit encryption, lock it with Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology and deliver it with a digital signature provided after rigorous checks on a user's identity.

Key escrow left open

Mr Dykes said no provision had been made for key escrow. This is the controversial proposal backed by law enforcement agencies which would give them access to the keys to encrypted data when they suspected a serious crime.

The government has given industry until the end of the month to come up with an alternative to key escrow. "We are going to have to wait and see how the government handles this. There is clearly a dilemma," said Mr Dykes.

The Royal Mail is joining companies such as British Telecom and organisations like the British Chambers of Commerce in offering a "Trusted Third Party" service for handling security for companies' data.

Surveys estimate that sales of secure electronic commerce services will be worth £400m in the UK within two years and £2bn across Europe.

Royal Mail aims to be biggest

Director of Electronic Services Jim Pang said the Royal Mail aimed to become the UK's largest public certification authority and this would be the largest PKI deployment in the world.

While the service would initially be aimed at businesses at a cost of around £1 a week per company user, it would soon be extended to private individuals and Post Office counter outlets could be used.

With many other parties offering certification software and services, the Royal Mail has the problem of battling for business in a world of competing standards.

But Mr Pang said it would be establishing cross-certification with other trust bodies and its own technology had PKI software developed by the Canadian company, Entrust. More than four million users and 780 organisations were already using Entrust worldwide.

PCs get encryption services

ViaCode will not only prove useful in sending data securely over the Net. There were demonstrations of how it could make information on PCs more confidential.

Encrypted folders can be set up and documents dragged into them, invoking automatic encryption and compression to around a quarter of their size. Deleted files can also be encrypted as they are dragged onto recycle bins.

Another service now in Beta testing, Secure Courier, would include additional information such as proof of submission of a message, proof of delivery and its status in between.

"This would make it a viable alternative to the international document courier market, the secure Internet equivalent of paper-based post," said Mr Pang.

Mail of the future

The state-owned Royal Mail seems to have come a long way from its announcement of a service last year that converted e-mails into conventional letters to send to people without computers.

But its managing director does not see the latest technology as the death knell for conventional post:

"We continue to see strong growth in traditional mail. I suspect there will still be a place for physical mail alongside the electronic version in the future," Mr Dykes said.

"This will find its level. We need to be in this market and we think we are strongly placed. Consumers are demanding choice and that will determine how the market develops."



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