Kansas inks digital signature pact

Kansas Secretary of State

Kansas officials announced a multiyear statewide contract today with VeriSign Inc. to create digital signature technology enabling residents and the private sector to conduct online business faster and more securely.

"We have to move away from the long-held notions that you have to understand how a bureaucracy works in order to work with bureaucracy," said Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, whose agency is spearheading the initiative. "And we believe that PKI [public-key infrastructure] is going to create the bridge so that any individual, any citizen will have the opportunity to do business with the state more efficiently and more effectively.

Although still in the early stages of system design, Thornburgh said that, instead of building a system and fitting applications into the system, the initiative is proceeding on a project-by-project basis to achieve early successes.

For example, one early application will enable users to conduct business with the state revenue department concerning foreign automobile liens. "And in that we will be specifically working with their users to get the certifications in place as opposed to doing a wholesale, 'Go to the secretary of State's Web site and sign up to become a user,'" he said.

That's the approach they'll also take with Kansas' banking community and the state treasurer's office, which provides short-term loans with overnight transactions via the telephone.

"We're going to be able to provide a greater level of security with PKI than you can with a simple phone transaction, and it becomes a cost-saving element and a time-saving element both for the Treasurer's office and the Department of Revenue as well as for the users of the product," he said.

Barry Leffew, vice president of VeriSign's public-sector group, said the Mountain View, Calif.-based company is providing the entire certificate authority infrastructure for the state. He said Kansas will act as the registration authority, handling the proofing, issuance and management of digital credentials, including revocation.

"But really all that back-end processing — really the heavy lifting — is done by VeriSign in terms of managing the PKI infrastructure to provision the certificates, to manage them," he said.

To sell the program, Thornburgh said they have to convince users and agencies that digital certificates as a manner of identification and authentication are "faster, better and cheaper" than the present way of doing business. It also will free up agency resources and personnel who can be used more efficiently, especially during budget crises.

Nevertheless, Thornburgh said, "I think the worst reason to try sell something is saying we're going to save a bunch of money doing it. We need to focus on the customer service aspect and on the ability to deliver a better product. I think the fact that we save money is a byproduct of what we're doing as opposed to the driving result of what we're trying to accomplish."

The genesis of Kansas's program began almost eight years ago when Thornburgh assumed office. An early leader in online filing, his department pulled together colleagues from 15 agencies to regularly discuss the concept of PKI even before knowing anything about it, he said. That group has stayed together "designing, building, wrestling and now implementing PKI."

If cities, counties, and the educational system want to use digital signature technology, they must use the contract, said Janet Chubb, assistant secretary of state, otherwise they must demonstrate why the contract won't be applicable to them. There are 90 state agencies and 55 higher-education institutions.

"We're very eager to make sure we do it exactly and precisely right early on and that's going to build success for us in the long term because, quite frankly, you get one chance to do this right," Thornburgh said. "And if it is not exactly perfect the first time out we lose probably a decade to make this work in Kansas."

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