OMB: E-signatures a must

The agency that is leading the way to electronic government says 'digital signatures' that encrypt documents and messages probably offer the best assurance of privacy when citizens deal with government agencies online.

The agency that is leading the way to electronic government says "digital

signatures" that encrypt documents and messages probably offer the best

assurance of privacy when citizens deal with government agencies online.

Officially, the Office of Management and Budget said it is remaining

neutral on the question of how best to ensure privacy and authenticity in

electronic transactions with the government.

But in guidance to agencies May 2, OMB officials said, "we recognize

that cryptographically-based digital signatures hold great promise for ensuring

both authentication and privacy in networked interactions."

And digital signatures "may be the only technology available that can

foster interoperability across numerous applications," they wrote in the

guidance, which instructs agencies on how to begin complying with the Government

Paperwork Elimination Act.

The act, which was passed in 1998, required federal agencies by Oct.

21, 2003, to provide people and organizations with the option of dealing

with the government electronically instead of on paper.

Among the central concerns with electronic transactions, however, are

privacy and assurance that documents have not been altered.

A number of agencies have used less sophisticated methods to assure

privacy and authenticity. For example, the Internal Revenue Service and

the Securities and Exchange Commission have used personal identification

numbers, or PINs, to provide privacy for companies and individuals submitting

regulatory filings and tax data. But both agencies plan eventually to adopt

digital signatures, OMB said.

The digital signature option OMB favors is public-key infrastructure.

It actually involves two keys — a private one used for encrypting messages

and documents, and a public one for unencrypting them. The private key is

available only to the document's author. The public key is available to

document recipients and enables them to unencrypt and read the document,

but not change it.

"Properly implemented electronic signature technologies can offer degrees

of confidence in authenticating identity that are greater than a handwritten

signature can offer," OMB said.

Many policy details must be worked out before public-key technology

can be widely put in place, however. For example, how is the private key

to be linked to its holder? It could be through biometrics, such as a fingerprint,

voice print or retina scan. Or it could be embedded in a smart card or software.

Whatever the method, agencies must develop policies that ensure electronic

transactions are authentic, private and can be trusted, OMB said.

There are some technical hurdles still to be overcome, including the

problem that encrypted documents created in old formats may not be easily

transferred to more modern formats and may not retain assurance of their

authenticity. This includes documents created today opened 10 years hence

in the formats that will be in use then.

OMB does not directly address that issue in its guidance, but suggests

that the National Records and Archives Administration should take the lead

in working with agencies on questions of maintaining, preserving and disposing

of electronic records.

From agencies' perspective, dealing more with electronic documents and

less with paper should also improve recordkeeping, create more opportunities

for better data analysis and increase employee productivity, OMB officials

wrote.

Electronic government has the potential to "fundamentally change the

way agencies interact with the public," said Patrice McDermott, an information

policy analyst for OMB Watch, a private government watchdog organization.

OMB officials noted, however, that even after the Paperwork Elimination

Act takes effect, "transaction partners [formerly known as citizens] are

not required to use the electronic option."

At a glance

An OMB Guide to Paper Cuts

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act requires agencies to be able

to conduct business with individuals and organizations and store records

electronically by Oct. 21, 2003.

To comply, some of the key steps agencies must take are:

* Be able to accept electronic documents and digital signatures.

* Assure the privacy of personal information.

* Provide electronic acknowledgment that electronic filings have been

successfully submitted.

* Develop reliable systems of electronic recordkeeping.

* Automate information processes where possible.

MORE INFO

"An OMB Guide to Paper Cuts" [Federal Computer Week, May 8, 2000]

"John Hancock' Goes Digital" [civic.com, May 1, 2000]

"NSF pins hopes on security pilot" [Federal Computer Week, April 24, 2000]

"Agencies pushed toward PKI" [Federal Computer Week, April 17, 2000]

"What feds need to know" [Federal Computer Week, April 10, 2000]

"Virginia moves toward digital signatures for government business" [civic.com, Nov. 2, 1999]

"Digital Signatures Key to Cross-Governmental Biz" [civic.com, Oct. 4, 1999]

OMB's guidelines for the Implementation of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act

BY William Matthews
May 8, 2000

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