E-signature hits Hill

Congressional leaders for the first time have signed legislation by using electronic signature software, which supporters say demonstrates the technology's growing acceptance as a viable means to further the concept of an electronic government.

PenOp Inc. provided the software used July 15 by Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) to sign a Year 2000 legal reform bill designed to limit lawsuits arising from computer failures that occur after Jan. 1, 2000.

Hastert and Thurmond used a stylus and pressure-sensitive slate to sign the bill in an Adobe Systems Inc. portable document format that was then attached to an e-mail and sent to President Clinton, said Jason Poblete, a spokesman for Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Administration Committee, which spearheaded the signing.

The ceremony took place to demonstrate the technology, which has been used at least once before at a bill-signing ceremony when President Clinton passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Poblete said. Hastert and Thurmond's use of PenOp's Signature Series software gave Congress another opportunity to "highlight the importance of technology and the importance of trying out new things and demonstrate where we think this [technology] is headed," Poblete said.

Signature Series enables online users and remote workers legally sign and secure electronic information over any network with the handwritten signature of the parties involved, said Howard Schechter, chief executive officer of PenOp. The solution combines digital signature technology with biometric technology that measures the speed and pressure of a signature as well as the shape and size of the letters.

The signature appears in the document written out the same as it would on paper, but embedded in it is other technology that can be used to validate the signer and ensure that the document hasn't been changed since it was signed, Schechter said.

The Environmental Protection Agency is starting a pilot that will use Signature Series for signing documents submitted to the EPA by all the organizations it regulates, Schechter said.

Commercially, the solution was used last year to conclude millions of transactions formerly tied to pen and paper.

"What Congress is doing reflects the large-scale change in what the market is doing and in what the states and regulators are doing," Schechter said.

Encouraging electronic signatures is a logical step following passage of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act last year, Schechter added. The law requires agencies to have in place by October 2003 systems that provide the public with the option of submitting government forms electronically as a substitute for paper.

After signing the Year 2000 liability bill electronically, Hastert and Thurmond still had to sign it in ink under current law, which also requires bills to be printed on parchment paper and sent to the president in Washington, D.C.

Poblete said he didn't know how much that process costs but said it would require a change in the law to move to an electronic method of signing the bill. He said the House Administration Committee would require thorough testing of the technology before it would be adopted.

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