U.S. Congress Hosts E-Signature Conference

With a landmark law authorizing the use of e-signatures having just taken effect, U.S. Congressional lawmakers hosted representatives of the budding industry in Washington, D.C., Wednesday and received hands-on demonstrations of the new technology.

Under the Electronic Signature in Global & National Commerce Act (also known as the E-SIGN law) which kicked in Sunday, businesses and individuals can sign everything from contracts to mortgages over their computers and the Internet, reducing hassles and allowing e-commerce firms to offer expanded convenience to customers.

Signatures and Smart Cards

Among the companies present in the House Commerce Committee’s hearing room was iLumen, which is believed to have been the first company to sign a deal — in this case, a multi-million dollar (US$) venture financing agreement — under the terms of the E-SIGN law Sunday night, and Digital Signature Trust Co., based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Digital Signature Trust expects to be a major player in the world of digital signature authentication. The firm got a big boost when President Clinton used one of the company’s “smart cards” — which guarantee an individual’s identity — to sign the E-SIGN law.

The company hopes that its “TrustID Certificates,” which are used to verify the identities of parties in a transaction, catch on among organizations and individuals, allowing them to conduct e-commerce with the same authority and confidence as in face-to-face transactions.

Already, the company has issued 80,000 digital identifiers for the Department of Veterans Affairs and another 8,000 for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These government agencies intend to use the signatures to allow claimants to file benefits and top-level managers to access sensitive data online.

Challenges Remain

While the mood in the hearing room was generally optimistic about entering a world in which human beings no longer need to make physical marks on papers, scrolls, or stone tablets to signal their assent to a deal — as has been done for millennia — a few of the companies present made a case for further change.

AlphaTrust Corp., a Dallas, Texas-based software firm, came to the Hill to show off its technology, which it believes fills holes that exist in E-SIGN’s provisions for handling e-signatures in inter-state and international deals.

“While E-Sign intends to prevent discrimination against electronic signatures in business transactions, it does not clearly provide an implementation plan or cover intra-state and international transactions, nor does it provide a defined method of ensuring protection and security,” AlphaTrust chief executive officer Bill Brice said.

No Two Are Alike

Also on display on the Hill were “biometric” technologies, which use fingerprints, retinal scans, and other biological data to identify individual humans making transactions electronically.

While such identifiers are not currently covered under the terms of the E-SIGN legislation, companies like BioNetrix of Vienna, Virginia, showed how passwords could someday be rendered obsolete by new technologies.

With face, retina, and thumb scans, people would no longer be forced to remember access codes when making transactions, and commerce would be more secure on the theory that it is tougher to hack a fingerprint than a password.

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