E-signatures battle 'fear factor'

At the Army's White Sands Missile Range, electronic signatures have greatly speeded up the mail. Routine correspondence is signed and delivered in a matter of seconds, eliminating hours, days or even weeks of waiting for a memo in the mail.

"Basically, this is about trying to get a document through the process faster," said Carl Saenz, an information systems manager at the New Mexico installation. Rain, snow, bad traffic or distance no longer matter now that signed, authenticated documents can be delivered electronically, he said.

White Sands uses e-signature software called ApproveIt, and there is no bigger fan than Saenz.

E-signatures gained legal authority in the federal government under the Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1998 (GPEA), which requires agencies to make it possible for citizens to interact electronically with the government whenever possible by 2003. To ensure secure end-to-end electronic transactions, the law includes a section stating that an e-signature has the same legal effect, validity and enforceability as an ink signature on paper.

Last year, President Clinton signed the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-Sign) Act, giving digital signatures more publicity. That act provided the private sector with a similar assurance.

Since passage of the two laws, dozens of agencies at the federal, state and local levels have begun using e-signatures, but cautiously.

"It's mostly for internal purposes," said Nathalie Benoit, spokeswoman for Silanis Technology Inc., the Canadian company that produces ApproveIt. She said it has been bought by at least 80 government divisions in the United States.

The Army, the U.S. Mint, the Kansas Department of Transportation and the district attorney for Stanislaus County, Calif., are among those now using ApproveIt and electronically signed documents in place of paper ones.

But in most cases, use remains limited to administrative matters within the agency, Benoit said. Agencies do not yet appear ready to trust the use of e-signatures for financial contracts or important legal agreements. At White Sands, for example, the e-signatures are mostly used for "day-to-day documents, memos of record and correspondence," Saenz said.

But ApproveIt demonstrates some of the possibilities that lie ahead with wider use of e-signatures.

Saenz says he can send memos that are authenticated with digital signatures so the recipients are assured they were not altered. He can convert ApproveIt documents into PDF files and e-mail them anywhere. They can be read as long as the recipient has Adobe Systems Inc.'s Reader, which is available as a free download.

As PDFs, the files can be opened and read on a computer, printed and read on paper, easily sent to multiple recipients or even posted on a server to be read by a wider audience an option useful for disseminating official policies and regulations, he said.

When GPEA and later the E-Sign Act were signed, they were hailed as clearing the way for multimillion-dollar transactions to be completed online with confidence that parties to the deal would be legally bound. So far, however, the reaction has been more subdued.

Part of the problem is that no single type of e-signature has emerged as the standard, said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. And although GPEA endorsed the use of e-signatures, it identified more than a half-dozen varieties and multiple subvarieties, he said.

There is also "a fear factor," Benoit said. People are often reluctant to adopt unfamiliar technologies.

To make e-signatures seem more familiar, Silanis' software offers the capability to scan a handwritten signature that will appear when electronic documents are signed digitally. The image of the signature does not add any security to the approval process but is included "for cultural reasons," according to an Aug. 14 review of ApproveIt by Gartner Inc.

The value of e-signatures is that they reduce the cost and time sometimes weeks or months of exchanging paper documents, according to Gartner.

The Army appears to be preparing for wider use of e-signatures. The U.S. Army Publishing Agency, which creates most of the forms the service uses, is adopting Silanis software to create electronic forms that are e-signature-enabled, Benoit said. The Commonwealth of Virginia, however, is the first government entity to use ApproveIt for external transactions. The Virginia secretary of state uses the software to accept electronically signed lobby.ist disclosure forms, Benoit said.


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