Agencies expect E-Sign law to spur e-gov

Agencies expect E-Sign law to spur e-gov

The bill will revolutionize Internet business, Sen. Spencer Abraham says.

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

With a swipe of a smart card, President Clinton used the first digital certificate issued under a General Services Administration contract to electronically sign a bill that gives digital signatures the same stature as those scrawled with pen on paper.

The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, S 761, is not targeted at government specifically, but officials said the law will help agencies move toward an electronic government.

The E-Sign Act will broaden the overall use of digital signatures, making it easier to roll out e-government initiatives to the public, said Mary Mitchell, deputy associate administrator for electronic commerce in GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

'It's really complementary more than anything' to other laws, such as the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which requires that agencies put their activities online by October 2003 wherever possible, she said.

'Government agencies will have the authority to enforce the laws, protect the public interest and carry out their missions in the electronic world,' the president said.

'Just imagine, if this had existed 224 years ago, the Founding Fathers wouldn't have had to come all the way to Philadelphia on July 4th for the Declaration of Independence. They could have e-mailed their John Hancocks in,' the president said during a signing ceremony at Congress Hall in Philadelphia near Independence Hall, where founders signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 using a quill pen.

Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) introduced the bill in May of last year, and members from both chambers helped draft the final bill. 'This bill literally supplies the pavement for the e-commerce lane of the information superhighway,' he said. 'The bill revolutionizes the way consumers, industry and government conduct business over the Internet.'

Clinton became the first and most prominent user of GSA's Access Certificates for Electronic Services program. He used a smart card that contained an ACES digital certificate issued by Digital Signature Trust of Salt Lake City. Clinton signed the law electronically by swiping the smart card through a reader on a PC and keying in his password, Buddy, the name of his dog.

Digital Signature Trust is the only one of the three ACES vendors that GSA has certified so far. AT&T Corp. and Operational Research Consultants Inc. of Chesapeake, Va., are working on their certifications.

Agency officials said they hope the law will break down some barriers to e-government.

Agencies have faced a conundrum when it comes to public-key infrastructure initiatives. There has been a bit of trepidation among agencies, especially about the legality of digital signatures, said Judith A. Spencer, director of the Center for Governmentwide Security for GSA's Federal Technology Service, which oversees ACES.

Caught in a trap

That concern has come despite GPEA and guidance from the Office of Management and Budget telling agencies they could use digital signatures [GCN, May 8, Page 3].

Although GPEA urges agencies to put activities online, the Justice Department has told some agencies they could not conduct transactions using an electronic signature because there was no case law to prove that such transactions were legal.

That created a catch-22 situation: Case law could not be developed because agencies were not allowed to conduct their pilot projects, said Patricia N. Edfors, director of government operations for Baltimore Technologies PLC of Baltimore.

During her tenure as chairwoman of the Public-Key Infrastructure Committee of the former Government Information Technology Services Board, several agencies expressed interest in conducting PKI pilot, Edfors said. Agencies were told that the legality of electronic signatures was questionable, which prevented them from proceeding, she said.

'This puts more meat on that,' Spencer said. 'I see [the bill] as an enabler.'

The law addresses the issue of the legality of electronically signed transactions, said Keren Cummins, vice president of government services for Digital Signature Trust. 'This really clears that up,' she said.

The electronic-signature law will give agencies the protections they have needed to conduct electronic transactions, Edfors said.

Abraham said a uniform national framework of electronic-signature regulations would boost e-commerce. Standards vary from state to state, which hinders growth of electronic-signature technologies, he said.

The law primarily focuses on the private sector, but its provisions have implications for agencies, said Richard Guida, chairman of the PKI Working Group for the Chief Information Officers Council's Enterprise Interoperability and Emerging IT Committee.

The E-Sign law requires organizations that want to do business online to provide notice and offer consumers an opportunity to use traditional methods, Guida said. The act also requires that consumers agree to the use of digital signatures. Furthermore, it requires that the process be made clear so consumers understand it is legally binding, he said.

Proponents said they hope the law will spur development of an infrastructure that will let citizens use digital certificates easily. As electronic signatures become common in the private sector, the public will feel more comfortable using them for government services, said Tony Trenkle, director of electronic services at the Social Security Administration.

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