OMB: E-signatures a must
- By William Matthews
- May 08, 2000
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
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
* Develop reliable systems of electronic recordkeeping.
* Automate information processes where possible.