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Carsten Luedtge

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Peaceful Coexistence

The discussion on the intelligence and use of digital mail continues. Critics bemoan the somewhat tedious process of authentication. In Germany, for example, users need to present their ID at the local post office before they can open a virtual account. This could be the reason why adoption of E-Postbrief, De-mail, etc. is still low. But there is another way. In Denmark you simply need your social security number to use the eBoks mail portal. In the final analysis, the argument regarding the difficulty of authentication is mere pretext; it misses the point.

The fact is cyber-criminality, spam, and phishing attacks unsettle consumers in search of a safe alternative to standard e-mail. Even more important than in the private sphere, for companies and public agencies liability and confidentiality in business communications are critical.  But what does that look like in practice? According to the Global Deliverability Benchmark Report of 2011, the deliverability rate of e-mail worldwide is 76%. Overall, the inbox placement rate (IPR) dropped last year an average of 6%. The trend during the second half of 2011 was particularly negative in North America.  There the IPR fell from 86% during the first half of 2011 to 79% in the second half. Only Central and South America showed improvement, and even there the average was still a mere 72%. Even fewer e-mails reach their target in Asia.

These figures make it clear that e-mail is hardly the channel for sending legally binding digital mail, even if there are some really good technologies to support it. But let’s be honest. Who really wants all their document traffic passing through one and the same account? The risk is far too great that something will get swallowed up in the sheer volume or be accidentally deleted. If the documents are particularly critical – like policies, termination notices, and contracts to name a few – the consequences could be far reaching. Missing a termination notice can easily run into a lot of money. So the problem is how do we separate the important from the banal? Advanced filing systems and policies may ease the problem, but they don’t solve it. It would be much better to strictly separate the documents based on importance at the outset and then choose the appropriate output channel.  After all, we don’t send everything by registered mail in the traditional world. And there’s more. Why not set up a virtual mail portal right away, one where all important documents could not only be retrieved and sent, but edited as well as archived for the long term and in legally binding form?

Therein lies the success of mail portals like eBoks (Denmark), My eCitizen (Singapore) and AGOSP (Australia).  The operators guarantee that users’ electronic post boxes are permanently secure. The portal becomes a “digital vault” that is opened with a personalized PIN. The users, citizens and companies have 100% assurance that their documents will still be available in their entirety in 20 years: diplomas, insurance policies, supplier contracts and invoices. No accidental deletion like with e-mail, no unrecognizable formats due to software updates, no “document jungle”.

Electronic mail portals are secure

One approach is the one METAPOSTA uses, a portal initiated and established by the Basque regional government for the receipt, editing, and management of electronic mail of all kinds. METAPOSTA is geared equally to citizens and companies. Under www.metaposta.com you can open a virtual account to upload, edit, sign and send documents as well as archive them in a legally binding form. Login to and use of the virtual mailbox is free of charge, only transmitting mail incurs a charge, just like traditional postage.  The recipient owes nothing. Documents are accessible from mobile devices as well as a PC.  The portal, to which Compart is lending its expertise in data stream optimization technology,  will eventually replace the traditional post office box, according to the project, which is part of the “Agenda Digital de Euskadi 2015”. Since its introduction in February 2011, approximately 800,000 documents have been sent via the portal. METAPOSTA currently boasts 17,000 users, and the trend is upward.

A digital mail portal such as METAPOSTA would hardly succeed if it were not reliable and secure. Critics and nay-sayers argue that E-post cannot fully meet data protection standards, but that argument is looking less and less plausible. There is no such thing as absolute security in any case. But there is one fundamental question, a philosophical one, for the whole IT industry. To what degree are we willing to tolerate a certain amount of residual risk? The fact is that suppliers of E-Post solutions, of whatever kind, have invested a great deal in complex security infrastructures that are not only reliable from a technical standpoint, but in terms of organization and processes as well. Negligence is something they can ill afford. In Germany, for example, the Federal Office for Information Security certified the E-Postbrief as compliant with the security requirements of the international ISO standard and the technical specifications for basic IT security. The ISO 27001 certificate applies to the core, i.e. for the entire E-Postbrief portal application. All applications that a registered used can run on the screen have been tested as secure, unlike regular e-mail where the accusation of poor data protection is totally justified. Sending a confidential document by e-mail is like driving without a seat belt, comfortable yet dangerous.

The situation is similar in other countries; the basic principle remains the same: every letter is automatically encrypted using modern technology to prevent third parties from viewing written correspondence. Even the documents stored in the electronic mailbox are encrypted. The infamous millisecond in the computer center in which a document is deconstructed is hardly enough for a hacker attack.

Electronic stamp: knowing when the digital letter was opened

The fact is digitization is rapidly increasing and a life without “electronic identities” is hard to imagine. The volume of physical documents is decreasing worldwide. Current surveys by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) cite an average dip of 7%, with the drop in North America in the double digits. In ten years, probably only half of all documents will exist in paper form. Against this backdrop, the importance of digital portals for sending mail will increase, especially as other services such as document forwarding are also re-engineered to be confidential, binding and reliable. E-mail programs do not offer this security and reliability. In a portal it’s also relatively simple to document and track if and when a document was received, similar to a registered letter. If the recipient opens the digital letter, the sender is automatically notified and the whole process is documented in the system. The letter gets an “electronic stamp” so to speak. Its arrival is easy to verify at any later time. What we take for granted in the physical postal world, is also possible in the digital.

To put it plainly, the e-letter will not replace e-mail. The two are much more likely to peacefully coexist. Documents of great legal consequence are sent via validated channels such as the electronic letter, while e-mail covers the rest. In the final analysis everybody wins. Electronic communication in business grows more confidential, compliant, and reliable. On the other hand, users are relieved of weighting their digital mail. Automatically separating the important from the banal allows them to concentrate on their core business.

Tags: Digital Post, Document Processing, E-Mail, Output Management, compart
Categories: Digital Signatures, PDF