Signature squabbles

It's often said that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing.

And that certainly is the case in the way the federal government has tried

to legalize digital signatures for electronic commerce.

Legislation was stalled for months in Congress over details about protecting

consumers. But lawmakers might have moved more quickly if only they had

lifted their heads to see government agencies blazing ahead into the electronic

signature age.

Agencies have been working to come up with ways for citizens to file legal

documents online using a code or personal identification number (PIN) instead

of sending a handwritten signature by mail after the ink dries.

At least 19 agencies have deployed e-signature proj-ects, including

the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, NASA and the

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The Internal Revenue Service is leading the way with a project expected

to impact every taxpayer by 2008. This year, nearly 7 million taxpayers

"signed" their returns with PINs and filed them over the Internet. More

are expected to jump into the program next year, and the IRS is targeting

80 percent of all taxpayers to e-file by 2008.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has tested a system using PINs

to provide privacy for companies and individuals filing regulatory and tax

data online. And the Social Security Administration is more than getting

its feet wet, too. Earlier this year, it enlisted 101 businesses to file

W-2 forms electronically with e-signatures. The project was 100 percent

successful, according to SSA project director Chuck Liptz.

According to Liptz, all the businesses said they would do it again,

and 91 percent said it was easier than filing the paper copy with traditional

signature.

The practice is growing tremendously, said Keren Cummings, vice president

of governmental services for Digital Signature Trust Co. "Of course, there

would be resistance if an agency said, "At the end of next week, we'll only

accept filing one way.'"

But the government is not doing this. Instead, it is phasing the practice

in slowly, testing out various mechanisms and looking for potential problems.

While the practice is still in its infancy, it has the potential to

save millions of dollars and speed up transactions that now take days to

complete because people have to be gathered in the same place to sign a

legal document.

"If someone looks back at the arguments in Congress 10 years from now,

they will laugh because everything will be done by e-signatures," said Matthew

Tanielian, director of government relations for the Information Technology

Council, a trade association that lobbies Congress. "It will create efficiencies

that we don't have today, and you won't have to have two people in the same

place to sign a legal document," he predicted.

But can anyone imagine the day when a marriage license can be signed

in absentia? Or a birth or death certificate? Could a will be drawn up and

signed in absentia or an eviction notice be signed and served electronically?

While both government and the private sector are struggling over how

to work out the legality of this new type of signature, federal agencies

are working on ways to prevent fraud by making sure they are tamper-resistant.

In legislation now moving through Congress, the Democrats would provide

"carve-outs," documents that are so important that signatures would be required

the old-fashioned way. Republicans agreed that these exceptions were needed,

and the list should include court documents, insurance and utility cancellations,

and safety notices.

Democrats also wanted to make sure that "technically unsophisticated"

consumers are not shut out from the new world of e-sigs. In a recent letter

to lawmakers, Senate Democrats cautioned that more than 70 percent of American

households do not have Internet access.

"In enacting legislation to facilitate electronic commerce, we must

ensure that we do not widen the "digital divide' to the disadvantage of

the majority of Americans," the letter said.

Nevertheless, Cummings said, "Stepping into the e-gov or e-biz space

is something that is exploding."By Judi Hasson

It's often said that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand

is doing. And that certainly is the case in the way the federal government

has tried to legalize digital signatures for electronic commerce.

Legislation was stalled for months in Congress over details about protecting

consumers. But lawmakers might have moved more quickly if only they had

lifted their heads to see government agencies blazing ahead into the electronic

signature age.

Agencies have been working to come up with ways for citizens to file legal

documents online using a code or personal identification number (PIN) instead

of sending a handwritten signature by mail after the ink dries.

At least 19 agencies have deployed e-signature proj-ects, including

the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, NASA and the

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The Internal Revenue Service is leading the way with a project expected

to impact every taxpayer by 2008. This year, nearly 7 million taxpayers

"signed" their returns with PINs and filed them over the Internet. More

are expected to jump into the program next year, and the IRS is targeting

80 percent of all taxpayers to e-file by 2008.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has tested a system using PINs

to provide privacy for companies and individuals filing regulatory and tax

data online. And the Social Security Administration is more than getting

its feet wet, too. Earlier this year, it enlisted 101 businesses to file

W-2 forms electronically with e-signatures. The project was 100 percent

successful, according to SSA project director Chuck Liptz.

According to Liptz, all the businesses said they would do it again,

and 91 percent said it was easier than filing the paper copy with traditional

signature.

The practice is growing tremendously, said Keren Cummings, vice president

of governmental services for Digital Signature Trust Co. "Of course, there

would be resistance if an agency said, "At the end of next week, we'll only

accept filing one way.'"

But the government is not doing this. Instead, it is phasing the practice

in slowly, testing out various mechanisms and looking for potential problems.

While the practice is still in its infancy, it has the potential to

save millions of dollars and speed up transactions that now take days to

complete because people have to be gathered in the same place to sign a

legal document.

"If someone looks back at the arguments in Congress 10 years from now,

they will laugh because everything will be done by e-signatures," said Matthew

Tanielian, director of government relations for the Information Technology

Council, a trade association that lobbies Congress. "It will create efficiencies

that we don't have today, and you won't have to have two people in the same

place to sign a legal document," he predicted.

But can anyone imagine the day when a marriage license can be signed

in absentia? Or a birth or death certificate? Could a will be drawn up and

signed in absentia or an eviction notice be signed and served electronically?

While both government and the private sector are struggling over how

to work out the legality of this new type of signature, federal agencies

are working on ways to prevent fraud by making sure they are tamper-resistant.

In legislation now moving through Congress, the Democrats would provide

"carve-outs," documents that are so important that signatures would be required

the old-fashioned way. Republicans agreed that these exceptions were needed,

and the list should include court documents, insurance and utility cancellations,

and safety notices.

Democrats also wanted to make sure that "technically unsophisticated"

consumers are not shut out from the new world of e-sigs. In a recent letter

to lawmakers, Senate Democrats cautioned that more than 70 percent of American

households do not have Internet access.

"In enacting legislation to facilitate electronic commerce, we must

ensure that we do not widen the "digital divide' to the disadvantage of

the majority of Americans," the letter said.

Nevertheless, Cummings said, "Stepping into the e-gov or e-biz space

is something that is exploding."

NEXT STORY: Tidemark, Unisys widen e-gov reach

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