Making documents safe for workflow

With the federal government starting to lay the foundation for electronic commerce, many agencies are looking to commercial solutions for building public-key infrastructure systems.

Standard PKI solutions such as Entrust Technologies' Entrust/PKI and Baltimore Technologies' UniCERT ensure that a document has come from whom you think it has and that it hasn't been altered in transit.

On the other hand, such solutions can fall short if a secure document needs to be passed around an agency or workgroup for multiple changes and approvals. Any change to the document in the workflow would invalidate the electronic certificate that authenticates it.

ApproveIt 4.2, from Silanis Technology Inc., addresses that problem by providing a flexible PKI solution that can work on its own or in conjunction with other PKI engines. ApproveIt 4.2 is different from other PKI products because it lets users place multiple digital signatures in a document without invalidating its electronic certificate. It also keeps track of who has approved and made changes to the document along the way. You can use ApproveIt 4.2 to route a variety of document types because it is compatible with many software packages.

ApproveIt 4.2 enables you to choose from several kinds of devices to capture a user's digital signature, including a signature tablet, a mouse or a scanner. You can save the signature to a file, called a Captured Signature (CPS) file, which is what we did, or you can configure the product to accept real-time signatures using an input device of your choice. If the signature is saved as a file, the owner must assign a password to that file, providing an extra layer of security to the signature itself.

You must also choose how you want to manage the digital certificates that accompany documents. The CPS File Certification Window offers three options. The first option, which we used for our testing, is to use ApproveIt's internally generated X.509 digital certificate. With this option — called self-signing — each user's signature file resides on his local PC, enabling individuals to sign documents before sending them on through the process.

The second option, which adds another layer of security, requires an administrator to oversee the signature capture process and to link his own signature file to the original user's file. Without administrator approval and linkage, the original user's signature is not valid.

The third option enables you to use certificates that are issued and managed by one of the third-party PKI solutions.

The ApproveIt 4.2 configuration manager offers a host of options, allowing you to customize the package to a high level of detail. For example, you can specify the tracking information that accompanies each signature, the placement of the signature in the document (at the cursor, at a bookmark, before or after a certain phrase and so on) and the signature's attributes such as color and line thickness.

Different security options offer document handling choices, such as whether to require just one signature or allow more than one. (You cannot specify the number of signatures required for a certain document approval process.)

We do have one complaint with ApproveIt 4.2: Learning how to configure and use the product is not easy. And installation and setup of the product was not intuitive. You must closely follow the manual — which we quickly found to be sorely inadequate — to get through the process. Some important information is contained only in the addendum, not in the main manual, so we were constantly shuffling between booklets. Fortunately, the online documentation is significantly better, and Silanis conducts twice-weekly World Wide Web seminars with live tutorials and question-and-answer sessions.

ApproveIt 4.2 comes in two versions: one that works with Microsoft Corp.'s Office applications and one that works with applications that use Portable Document Format, such as Adobe Acrobat. You can install both versions on your system simultaneously if you choose.

The two versions contain different sets of options, and we found that although the PDF version offers fewer menu choices, this version offers a more dynamic product. For example, if a PDF document has been modified, hashes appear over the signatures when you save it. If a Microsoft Word document has been modified, the only way to know about changes — without printing it — is to open the View Signatures Report, which lists who signed the document and when. But we would have liked to have seen some kind of visual alert.

We also discovered that the version of ApproveIt 4.2 for PDF files does not support X.509 PKI encryption, though it does support ApproveIt's standard CPS file encryption. CPS-encrypted signature files provide decent security, but they are not as tight or flexible as PKI-supported solutions.

However, Silanis will release an incremental upgrade — Version 4.21 — in early January that does provide PKI support for PDF files. The upgrade will be provided to current ApproveIt 4.2 users free of charge.

Printing Problems

Also on the downside: the method for printing documents from the two different versions of ApproveIt 4.2 is inconsistent and a bit quirky.

The integration between ApproveIt and Acrobat's print functionality is fine, enabling you to print directly from a command in Acrobat's menu. Noncertified documents are easy to identify because they print out with hash marks above the signatures.

Printing from a Microsoft Office application with ApproveIt 4.2 is not as easy. If you select Word's print function, the document will print with gray boxes around the signatures, indicating that it is not certified (even if it is). To print a certified document without the boxes, you must select the print function from within the ApproveIt drop-down menu. There is way to link ApproveIt's and Word's print functions to avoid this problem, but we don't recommend it because the process is very cumbersome.

The bottom line: Although ApproveIt 4.2's could be easier to use and configure, the program is a good package that will provide excellent document security to any organization. ApproveIt's unusual capability to add multiple signatures to a document in sequence sets it apart from other certification/signature solutions.

As of January 12, 2000, ApproveIt is not available on the GSA Schedule. It is available from the Unisys Image World contract (see the NIH Image World contract Web page). The company expects its GSA schedule to be in place by the end of February, 2000. Silanis Technology Inc. (514) 337-5255. www.silanis.com.

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