Energy tool delivers digital signature tech

The Energy Department last week released a tool for governmentwide use that makes it possible to verify the identity of a person submitting an electronic document.

The department and Entrust CygnaCom spent four months developing the tool, which applies digital code to a document that uniquely identifies the person submitting it. The software is used with Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat, software widely used to create digital versions of paper documents.

Agencies can use the tool by itself or incorporate it into a public-key infrastructure, which includes encryption and authentication technology, DOE officials said.

The agency developed the tool as part of the General Services Administration's e-Authentication project, one of 24 cross-agency e-government initiatives under development. As part of the initiative, officials are developing a gateway that will authenticate users for multiple e-government services by consolidating the means of authenticating a transaction — such as a password or digital certificate — through a single interface.

"Everything [was] coordinated," said Karen Evans, DOE's chief information officer. The department's digital signature technology runs on top of GSA's federal PKI bridge, which makes it easier for users to exchange data securely, according to Evans.

The impetus behind this initiative is the Government Paperwork Elimination Act's mandate that agencies must offer digital forms and accept electronic signatures by October 2003.

DOE was one of the first Cabinet- level departments to deploy its GPEA plan. In February, DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham digitally signed DOE's recommendation — as well as thousands of pages of supporting documents — to make Yucca Mountain, Nev., the repository for the nation's nuclear waste.

By submitting the information electronically, the department saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing and distribution costs, he said.

DOE plans to apply its tool, which cost about $200,000 to develop, in a variety of cases. "The idea is distribution of digitally signed documents," said Isadore Schoen, vice president and director of services at Entrust CygnaCom.

For example, anything that the secretary or the chief financial officer transmits to the Office of Management and Budget can be digitally signed using the tool, Evans said. The tool can also be used to attach e-signatures to internal documents, public information such as statistical reports and Congressional testimony.

She envisions other agencies using DOE's tool to add an extra layer of authenticity to information on their public Web sites.

"E-signature is just one piece of a larger identity model, but it's a start," said Michael Mestrovich, president and chief executive officer of Unlimited New Dimensions LLC. "Any time the government can come up with a uniform way of conducting business, that's good. The question is what the scope's going to be."

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