ISSUE 563: The high-tech office- Aug 8
The high-tech office
you're you is easier with signature software
you prove you're you? In the old technology world of paper contracts,
cheques and plastic credit cards, your signature served as proof.
Signatures could be forged, but they were simple to use and worked well
enough for centuries.
But how can you prove who really
sent that e-mail or other electronic document? If we expect electronic
business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions to grow, the
need for verifiable documents grows at the same pace.
I've sometimes inserted a scan of my
signature to the end of word processing documents that I've sent as
e-mail attachments. So far, it's always been accepted by the recipient
as if it was legally signed. It's clumsy, but at least it looks real
when it's printed out.
A better solution is electronic
signatures, but until recently, they've been handicapped by a lack of
standards and a lack of clear legal status. That's started to change,
In Canada, Bill C-6, the Personal
Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, gives the same
legal status to electronic signatures as that for handwritten
signatures. Provincial status is starting to arrive: B.C. Bill 32-2000,
the Electronics Transactions Act, passed second reading June 19. (We'll
leave aside cheap shots about whether a government that admits to not
using e-mail can be expected to legislate on such an issue.)
In the U.S., similar legislation has
just been enacted.
Montreal-based onSign (www.onsign.com)
in July released freely downloadable consumer software providing secure
electronic signing. Its onSign software "links the electronic image of
a person's handwritten signature to the exact contents of a Word
document or Outlook e-mail message in the same way that ink from a pen
is bound to paper in a traditional signing act." Altering the signed
document or copying the signature to another document invalidates the
At the same time, because the
technology embeds what appears to be a copy of the user's actual
signature, this high-tech e-signature retains some of the comfort-level
of more traditional pen-and-paper techniques. Documents such as
business letters, contracts and purchase orders that have had to be
printed and faxed, mailed or couriered can now be electronically signed
The first step in using onSign is to
convert a user's actual signature into a digital representation.
Signatures can be scanned or captured with a digitizing tablet or
pen-computer device such as a Palm. For users lacking access to those
devices, onSign offers a free service that allows users to fax the
company an example of their signature and receive the digitized version
by e-mail. This digitized signature is then secured with a password,
which must be entered each time the signature is used.
Installing the onSign software adds an
icon to the Word and Outlook toolbars, making it easy to "sign" a
document. The program is available for Word 97 and 2000 and Outlook 98
and 2000. (Once again, Mac, Linux and non-Microsoft users are
left out in the cold.)
While an image of the signature appears
in the document, proof of its validity requires use of the (also freely
downloadable) onSign viewer. A link to download the viewer is added
below the signature in the Word document or e-mail message.
OnSign uses technology developed by
Montreal's Silanis Technology (www.silanis.com). Silanis
also produces ApproveIt electronic approval management software, aimed
at the business and corporate market rather than the consumer targeted
by onSign.The adoption of electronic signatures may, however, be slowed
down by the lack of standard formats. Other incompatible signature
software includes Ilumin (www.ilumin.com), with its
"digital handshake," and SignOnLine (www.isignonline.com),
with an online filing cabinet and more.
Legislators and these companies hope
that, one way or another, e-signatures will help prevent e-fraud and
spur the growth of e-commerce. *