E-signatures battle 'fear factor'

Agencies seem hesitant to trust esignatures on financial contracts or important legal agreements

At the Army's White Sands Missile Range, electronic signatures have greatly speeded up the mail. Routine correspondence is signed and delivered in a matter of seconds — eliminating hours, days or even weeks of waiting fora memo in the mail.

"Basically, this is about trying to get a document through the process faster," said Carl Saenz, an information systems manager at the New Mexico installation. Rain, snow, bad traffic or distance no longer matter now that signed, authenticated documents can be delivered electronically, he said.

White Sands uses electronic-signature software called ApproveIt, and there is no bigger fan than Saenz.

Electronic signatures gained legal authority in the federal government under the Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1999, which requires agencies to make it possible for citizens to interact electronically with the government whenever possible by 2003. To ensure end-to-end electronic transactions, the law includes a section stating that an e-signature has the same legal effect, validity, and enforceability as an ink signature on paper.

Last year President Clinton also signed the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, giving the private sector a similar assurance.

Since then, dozens of agencies at the federal, state and local levels have begun using e-signatures, but cautiously.

"It's mostly for internal purposes," said Nathalie Benoit, spokeswoman for Silanis Technology Inc., a Canadian company that produces the ApproveIt e-signature software. She said the program has been bought by at least 80government divisions in the United States.

The Army, the U.S. Mint, the Kansas Department of Transportation and the district attorney for Stanislaus County, Calif., are among those now using ApproveIt and electronically signed documents in place of paper ones.

But in most cases, use remains limited to administrative matters within the agency, Benoit said. Agencies do not appear ready yet to trust e-signatures with financial contracts or important legal agreements.

At White Sands, for example, electronic signatures are mostly used for"day-to-day documents, memos of record and correspondence," Saenz said.

When the E-Sign Act was signed, it was hailed as clearing the way for multimillion-dollar transactions to be completed online with confidence that parties to the deal would be legally bound to it.

So far, however, the reaction has been more subdued.

Part of the problem is that no single type of electronic signature has emerged as the standard, said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. The Government Paperwork Elimination Act also endorses the use of e-signatures but identifies more than a half-dozen varieties and multiple subvarieties, he said.

There is also "a fear factor," Benoit said. People are often reluctant to adopt unfamiliar technologies.

To make electronic signatures seem more familiar, Silanis' software offers the capability to scan a handwritten signature so that it will appear when electronic documents are signed digitally. The image of the signature does not add any security to the approval process but is included "for cultural reasons," according to an Aug. 14 review of ApproveIt by Gartner Inc.

The value of electronic signatures is that they reduce the time it takes— sometimes weeks or months — and the cost of exchanging paper documents,according to Gartner.

The Army appears to be preparing for wider use of e-signatures. The U.S. Army Publishing Agency, which creates most of the forms the service uses, is adopting Silanis software to create electronic forms that are e-signature-enabled,Benoit said.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, however, is the first government entity to use ApproveIt for external transactions. The Virginia secretary of state uses the software to accept e-signed lobbyist disclosure forms, she said.

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