Lawmakers push for electronic signature use

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) represents Silicon Valley, that fabled land of great wealth,
gridlocked traffic and our national future that stretches from Palo Alto to South San
Jose.


Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) is chairman of the House Commerce
Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection.


Eshoo and Tauzin have introduced a bill, HR 2991, to require federal agencies to make
their forms available to the public online and, more importantly, to have the capacity to
receive filled-out forms electronically that bear digital signatures.


Dubbed the Electronic Commerce Enhancement Act, the bill makes policy sense but raises
important technical and legal issues. The bill was referred to both the Commerce
Committee, on which Eshoo and Tauzin serve, and the House Government Reform and Oversight
Committee. A Senate version will be referred to a single committee, probably Governmental
Affairs. The bill is technologically neutral.


Authenticating signatures is one critical issue. United States criminal law punishes
anyone who submits false information to the government, whether in the course of paying
taxes or getting financial benefits such as Social Security payments. For centuries,
government systems have depended on individuals' signatures to authenticate documents.
Even today, experts testify in court whether a sample and a signature were penned by the
same person.


The government is so dependent on signatures that even when a taxpayer files a tax
return electronically, IRS requires the filer to mail in a handwritten signature form.
Although the National Commission on Restructuring IRS recommended doing away with the
requirement--and IRS has stated it wants to do away with the paper--IRS is grappling with
how to do so.


The Justice Department will also be an important player in the digital signature debate
because it uses signatures to prosecute. It will be wary of anything prosecutors perceive
as threatening to that capability.


Authentication is an important requirement in many situations. For example, how does an
agency such as the Social Security Administration decide that a person calling in is
really who he or she claims to be? Some 50 programs in 37 agencies have already discussed
receiving forms digitally.


It will be interesting to see how the political and technical problem solvers work
together to meet these challenges.


Eshoo and Tauzin aren't the only ones thinking about them. Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.)
has introduced a bill that would place digital signatures on a par with traditional
written signatures in government and general commerce. Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) is
working on a bill that would let financial institutions use digital signatures. These two
bills are more complex because they deal with citizen-to-business and business-to-business
transactions.


HR 1907, a bill passed by the House and awaiting Senate action, orders the National
Institute of Standards and Technology to deal with interoperability problems for digital
signatures, although Federal Information Processing Standard 186 covers digital
signatures.


Meanwhile, the states aren't waiting for Congress. Arizona, Washington, Utah and others
are forging ahead with electronic signatures already in use. Feds may learn from the
states.


Permitting electronic filing of forms also backs into the perennial problem of
government competing with industry.


Several companies already provide user-friendly software packages that include
government forms. The forms can be downloaded from the Internet for free, but the
commercial packages have substantial enhancements designed to assist users in complying
with laws.


Citizens vote with their pocketbooks when they buy such software. Yet some agencies
have been slow to permit use of such packages. For example, those seeking Pell college
grants have had to submit separate financial information packets to each school because
the Education Department refused to accept data plugged into a computer program form,
citing the possibility of fraud.


Perhaps that problem has been solved, but debate on the Eshoo-Tauzin bill will bring
the whole problem into the forefront. A broad coalition of technology companies, consumer
groups and pro-National Performance Review government types will be needed to make
electronic commerce a reality and overcome the inertia of centuries of paper signatures.


Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell & Ryan. He
has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at smr@blrlaw.com.


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