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ISSUE 563: The high-tech office- Aug 8 2000

The high-tech office

ALAN ZISMAN

Proving you're you is easier with signature software

How can 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, however.

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 signature.

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 and e-mailed.

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. *

 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan