VA, FEMA go digital

The General Services Administration opened the doors even wider to the Electronic

Age by handing out 100,000 digital certificates last week to the Department

of Veterans Affairs and 10,000 to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The certificates clear the way for the Veterans Benefits Administration

to deliver health and education benefits online without requiring the exchange

of a handwritten signature on a piece of paper. For FEMA, the certificates

speed emergency services and equipment to disaster areas by eliminating

the wait for a hard copy of an authorized signature. Emergency managers

nationwide will use the certificates to gain access to critical FEMA databases

and World Wide Web sites.

Digital certificates are key to e-government because they verify that the

sender of a document, message or payment is who they say they are and provide

the security to do so.

"It is certainly one of the tools that will make the Electronic Age

happen," said John Sindelar, chief of staff for GSA's Office of Governmentwide

Policy.

Also last week,the Treasury Department announced two electronic transaction

initiatives that put the Internet to greater use collecting and disbursing

payments from the government's coffers.

Pay.gov will be launched in October, enabling consumers to make payments

ranging from camping licenses to certain taxes, using digital signatures,

certificates and other authentication technologies.

SLGSafe, the second Treasury initiative, is an e-commerce Internet service

for state and local governments that invest hundreds of millions of dollars

in securities. About 400 banks across the country hold the securities, and

accessing the system requires a digital certificate and an authorization

code.

The Internal Revenue Service plans to use digital signatures next year,

when it will offer 6 million taxpayers the ability to file their tax returns

using e-signatures. The IRS currently requires taxpayers who electronically

file a tax return to send signed paper forms to the agency.

The push toward a paperless government also picked up steam a month

ago when President Clinton signed the Electronic Signatures in Global and

Digital Commerce Act, giving digital signatures the same legal status as

pen-to-paper ones.

But agencies have been slow to offer electronic services that were more

sophisticated than what they have offered on their Web sites. One reason

was that setting up a public-key infrastructure that would provide the security

and identity verification needed to perform the more complex electronic

services would be complex and expensive.

GSA's Access Certificates for Electronic Services, awarded in 1999 to

Digital Signature Trust Co., AT&T and Operational Research Consultants Inc.,

was an effort to provide a contract agencies could use to develop broad

electronic

services. But few have signed up.

Until now. In May, GSA offered 500,000 free signatures, and the VA was first

in line to get them. "What you are seeing here is that agencies are eager

to get the certificate," said Richard Guida, chairman of the Federal PKI

Steering Committee. "VA was the first to the plate. That is an indication

that [digital signatures] are valuable commodities."

The VA will use the digital signatures as part of an initiative to simplify

and speed the process for applying for benefits such as education, rehabilitation,

pensions and job training programs. It will target disabled veterans who

have had trouble in the past cutting through red tape to get their benefits.

Harold Gracey, who left his post as VA's chief information officer in June

to join FedBid.com, an online purchasing site for the federal government,

said surveys showed that veterans were eager to use online services and

were "Internet savvy."

He said veterans' primary concern was security because of the sensitive

nature of medical information that may be transmitted online. But the common

PKI will enable veterans to electronically access their own protected information.

Mary Mitchell, GSA's deputy associate administrator for e-commerce, said

the digital signatures are foolproof and have been designed to protect the

often sensitive information about a veteran's health.

"The VA has done the homework and views digital certificates as an appropriate

measure for protecting the personal information of veterans," she said.

"It is a more secure method of ensuring that the person on the other end

of the system is who he says he is."

Veterans first must authenticate their identity and receive a password.

Then they can download the certificate and use it indefinitely, Mitchell

said.

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