1. Indicate whether further risk management measures are appropriate.
2. Where such measures are appropriate, indicate when and how a combination of
information security practices, authentication technologies, management controls, or other
business processes for each application will be practicable. In addition, if a particular
application is not practicable for conversion to electronic interaction as part of the plan,
agencies should explain the reasons and report any strategy to make such conversion
(c) The date of automation for the information process(es). If the implementation is
judged to be not practicable by October 2003, that conclusion may be noted instead of the
date. The dates should reflect the prioritization based on achievability and net benefit as
discussed in #1 above.
(4) Consistent with the plan take measures (including, if necessary, amending regulations or
policies to remove impediments to electronic transactions) to: (a) implement optional
electronic submission, maintenance, or disclosure of information and the use of any necessary
electronic signature alternatives; and (b) permit private employers who have record keeping
responsibilities imposed by the Federal government to store and file information pertaining to
their employees electronically.
(5) Ensure that measures taken under the plan reflect appropriate information system
confidentiality and security in accordance with the Privacy Act, the Computer Security Act, as
amended, and the guidance contained in OMB Circular A-130, Appendices I and III; and
ensure that these measures use, to the maximum extent practicable, technologies that are
either prescribed in Federal Information Processing Standards promulgated by the Secretary
of Commerce or are supported by voluntary consensus standards as defined in OMB Circular
A-119, "Federal Participation in the Development and Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards
and Conformity Assessment Activities," (63 FR 8546; February 19, 1998).
(6) Report progress annually against the plan (including any appropriate revisions to the
schedule) above along with annual performance reporting required under OMB Circular
(7) Consider the record keeping functionality of any systems that store electronic documents
and electronic signatures, to ensure users have appropriate access to the information and can
meet the agency's record keeping needs.
(8) In developing collections of information under the Paperwork Reduction Act, address whether
optional electronic submission, maintenance, or disclosure of information (including the
electronic storage and filing by employers of information about their employees) would be
practicable as a means of decreasing the burden and/or increasing the practical utility of the
b. Department of Commerce
The Department of Commerce must promulgate, in consultation with the agencies and OMB,
Federal Information Processing Standards as appropriate to further the specific goals of
GPEA. The Department should also develop guidance in the area of authentication
technologies and implementations, including cryptographic digital signature technology, with
assistance from the Chief Information Officers Council and the Public Key Infrastructure
c. Department of the Treasury
The Department of the Treasury must develop, in consultation with the agencies and OMB,
policies and practices for the use of electronic transactions and authentication techniques for
use in Federal payments and collections and ensure that they fulfill the goals of GPEA.
d. Department of Justice
The Department of Justice must develop, in consultation with the agencies and OMB,
practical guidance on legal considerations related to agency use of electronic filing and record
e. National Archives and Records Administration
The National Archives and Records Administration must develop, in consultation with the
agencies and OMB, policies and guidance on the management, preservation, and disposal of
Federal records associated with electronic government transactions, and must give particular
consideration to records issues associated with the use of electronic signature technologies.
f. General Services Administration
The General Services Administration must support agencies' implementation of digital
signature technology and related electronic service delivery.
g. Office of Management and Budget
OMB must provide continuing guidance and oversight for the implementation of GPEA,
including through its review of collections of information under the Paperwork Reduction
Part II. How can agencies improve service delivery and reduce burden through the use of
electronic signatures and electronic transactions?
This part provides Federal managers with basic information to assist in planning for an
orderly and efficient transition to electronic government. Agencies should begin their
planning promptly to ensure compliance with the timetable in GPEA.
Section 1. Introduction and background.
a. As required by GPEA, this Part provides guidance to agencies for deciding whether to use
electronic signature technology for a particular application. GPEA requires Federal agencies,
by October 21, 2003, to allow individuals or entities the option to submit information or
transact with the agencies electronically and to maintain records electronically, when
practicable. It specifically states that electronic records and their related electronic signatures
are not to be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability merely because they are in
electronic form. It also encourages Federal government use of a range of electronic signature
alternatives. The guidance helps agencies consider which electronic signature technology
may be most appropriate and suggests methods to maximize the benefit of electronic
information while minimizing risk when implementing a particular electronic signature
technology to secure electronic transactions.
The guidance builds on the requirements and scope of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995
(PRA). According to the PRA agencies must, "consistent with the Computer Security Act of
1987 (CSA) (40 U.S.C. 759 note), identify and afford security protections commensurate with
the risk and magnitude of the harm resulting from the loss, misuse, or unauthorized access to
or modification of information collected or maintained by or on behalf of an agency." 44
U.S.C. 3506(g)(3). In addition, we note that all transactions that involve Federal information
collections covered under the PRA are also covered under GPEA.
b. As GPEA, PRA, CSA, and the Privacy Act recognize, the goal of information security is to
protect the integrity and confidentiality of electronic records and transactions that enable business
operations. Different security approaches offer varying levels of assurance in an electronic
environment and are appropriate depending on a balance between the benefits from electronic
information transfer and the risk of harm if the information is compromised. Among these
approaches (in an ascending level of assurance) are:
(1) so-called "shared secrets" methods (e.g., personal identification numbers or passwords),
(2) digitized signatures or biometric means of identification, such as fingerprints, retinal patterns,
and voice recognition, and
(3) cryptographic digital signatures (discussed in more detail in Section 7).
Combinations of approaches (e.g., digital signatures with biometrics) are also possible and
may provide even higher levels of assurance than single approaches by themselves. Deciding
which to use in an application depends first upon finding a balance between the risks
associated with the loss, misuse, or compromise of the information, and the benefits, costs,
and effort associated with deploying and managing the increasingly secure methods to
mitigate those risks. Agencies must strike a balance, recognizing that achieving absolute
security is likely to be highly improbable in most cases and prohibitively expensive if
Section 2. What is an "electronic signature?"
a. GPEA defines "electronic signature" as follows:
" . . . a method of signing an electronic message that --
(A) identifies and authenticates a particular person as the source of the electronic message;
(B) indicates such person's approval of the information contained in the electronic
message." (GPEA, section 1709(1)).
This definition is consistent with other accepted legal definitions of signature. The term
"signature" has long been understood as including "any symbol executed or adopted by a
party with present intention to authenticate a writing." (Uniform Commercial Code, 1-201(39)(1970)). The "Uniform Electronic Transactions Act," recently adopted by the
National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws, and which is being enacted
by the States, contains a similar definition (see http://www.nccusl.org). These flexible
definitions permit the use of different electronic signature technologies, such as digital
signatures, personal identifying numbers, and biometrics (section 7 provides more detail on
electronic signature technologies). While it is the case that, for historical reasons, the Federal
Rules of Evidence are tailored to support the admissibility of paper-based evidence, the
Federal Rules of Evidence have no actual bias against electronic evidence.
b. In enacting GPEA, Congress addressed the legal effect and validity of electronic signatures
or other electronic authentication:
"Electronic records submitted or maintained in accordance with procedures developed under
this title, or electronic signatures or other forms of electronic authentication used in
accordance with such procedures, must not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability
because such records are in electronic form" (GPEA, section 1707).
Section 3. How should agencies assess the risks, costs, and benefits?
To evaluate the suitability of electronic signature alternatives for a particular application, the
agency needs to perform an assessment. The assessment should include a risk analysis, in
cases where the sensitivity of the transaction is sufficiently great, and a cost-benefit analysis.
The assessment identifies the particular technologies and management controls best suited to
minimizing the risk and cost to acceptable levels, while maximizing the benefits to the parties
involved. Often parts of the assessment can be quantified, but some factors - particularly the
risk analysis - usually can only be estimated qualitatively.
Availability of data affects the extent to which risk can be reliably quantified. A quantitative
approach to risk analysis generally attempts to estimate the monetary cost of risk compared to
the cost of risk reduction techniques based on:
(i) the likelihood that a damaging event will occur,
(ii) the costs of potential losses, and
(iii) the costs of mitigating actions that could be taken.
Reliable data on likelihood and costs may not be available. In this case a qualitative approach
can be taken by defining risk in more subjective and general terms such as high, medium, and
low. In this regard, qualitative analyses depend more on the expertise, experience, and good
judgment of the Federal managers conducting them than on quantified factors.
The same can be true with other costs and benefits. Some factors, such as the value of
deterring fraud, are difficult to quantify. If a new automated system is less secure than an old,
paper-based system, attempts to commit fraud or to repudiate transactions may increase. It
usually is not possible to quantify in monetary terms attitudes such as increased customer
satisfaction and willingness to cooperate with an agency, which may result from electronic
processes designed to be user-friendly. However, many costs (design, development, and
implementation) and benefits (reduced transaction costs, saved time etc.) can be quantified, as
is the case for other IT projects. Clearly, then, the assessment should use a combination of
quantitative and qualitative methods to judge the practicability of any electronic transaction
method and should include a comprehensive risk analysis when warranted by the sensitivity
of the data and/or the transaction.
Those alternatives that minimize risk to an acceptable level should be assessed in terms of net
benefit to the agency and the customer in order to determine the electronic signature most
appropriate for the transaction. If the net benefits are negative, the agency may determine that
using an electronic process is not practicable at this time. In any event, all risk analyses are
exercises in managerial judgment.
a. Consider the costs of risk mitigation. The assessment must recognize that neither
handwritten signatures nor electronic signatures are totally reliable and secure. Every method
of signature, whether electronic or on paper, can be compromised with enough skill and
resources, or due to poor security procedures, practices, or implementation. Setting up a very
secure, but expensive, automated system may in fact buy only a marginal benefit of deterrence
or risk reduction over other alternatives and may not be worth the extra cost. For example,
past experience with fraud risks, and a careful analysis of those risks, shows that exposure is
often low. If this is the case a less expensive system that substantially deters fraud is
warranted, and not an absolutely secure system. Overall, security determination should
conform to the Computer Security Act: the level of security should be commensurate with the
level of sensitivity of the transaction.
b. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine if an electronic transaction is practicable. The
primary goal of a cost-benefit analysis should be to find a cost-effective package of security
mechanisms and management controls that can support automated systems using electronic
communications. In estimating the cost of any system, agencies should include costs
associated with hardware, software, administration, and support of the system, both short-term
and long-term. Agencies should consider the following issues when framing the cost-benefit
(1) Offering more than one way to communicate electronically may enable more people to
conduct electronic transactions. If different partners have different skills and differing
security concerns, providing a combination of mechanisms will meet the needs of a greater
number of possible partners. While admittedly adding cost, offering multiple alternatives can
add greater benefit, as well. Under GPEA, the agency must considered this option whenever it
expects to receive over 50,000 electronic submittals (per year) of a particular form.
(2) Electronic transactions can impose costs on the transaction partners. Many electronic
signature techniques require specialized computer hardware and technical knowledge. The
higher these threshold costs are, the higher the participation costs are for users. Higher costs
will tend to narrow the range of potential users, which in turn limits the benefits of electronic
(3) Agencies should assess the costs of developing and maintaining electronic transactions.
Information technology costs continue to fall and electronic signature techniques continue to
evolve. As a result, the agency should periodically redo its risk and cost-benefit analyses on
those programs where electronic transactions were initially deemed impracticable to
determine whether costs and/or technologies have changed enough so that electronic
transactions have become practicable.
(4) If the cost-benefit analysis of a proposed solution indicates that the electronic solution is not
cost effective, the agency should seek to identify opportunities to reengineer the underlying
process being automated. Occasionally, practices and rules under the control of an agency are
based on factors or circumstances that may no longer apply. In these cases new practices and
rules should be proposed if the changes do not undermine the objective or impair security, and if
the changes lead to a more efficient process.
c. Document the decision. The Computer Security Act gives agency managers the
responsibility to select an appropriate combination of technologies, practices, and
management controls to minimize risk cost-effectively while maximizing benefits to all
parties to the transaction. Agency managers should document these decisions, however
qualitative, in the system security plan (see the NIST "Guide for Developing Security Plans
for Information Technology Systems," Special Publication 800-18 (December 1998)) for later
review and adjustment.
Section 4. What benefits should agencies consider in planning and implementing electronic
signatures and electronic transactions?
Benefits from moving to electronic transactions and electronic signatures include reduction in
transaction costs for the agency and the transaction partner. Transactions are quicker and it is
often easier to access information related to the transaction because it is in electronic form.
The electronic form often allows more effective data analysis because the information is
easier to access. Better data analysis often improves the operation of the newly electronic
transaction. In addition, if many transactions are electronic and data analysis can be done
across transactions the benefits can spillover into the rest of the agency as operational
awareness of the entire organization is improved. Moreover, business process reengineering
should accompany all attempts to facilitate a transaction through information technology.
Often the full benefits will be realized only by restructuring the process to take advantage of
the technology. Merely moving an existing paper based process to an electronic one is
unlikely to reap the maximum benefits from the electronic system.
In order to account for all the benefits associated with electronic transactions, agencies should
keep common information technology benefits in mind and look at the benefits realized by
a. What are the benefits? Agencies should identify all the benefits of automating program
transactions and making those transactions secure, such as:
(1) Increased speed of the transaction. The partner and the agency may spend less time
completing the transaction. The quicker speed combined with putting the transaction online
allows real-time help to the transaction partner, providing a benefit not found in a paper based
(2) Increased partner participation and customer satisfaction. Often a decrease in partner
transaction costs leads to more partners completing the transaction. In addition, partners tend
to have a more positive view of the process given its speed and ease of use.
(3) Improved record keeping efficiency and data analysis opportunities. If data are easier to
access and store then they can enhance program evaluation and expand awareness of the
effects of the government program in question.
(4) Increased employee productivity and improved quality of the final product. Electronic
transactions tend to have fewer errors because often the system minimizes retyping and
automatically detects certain errors. These benefits allow the employees to concentrate more
time on other matters.
(5) Greater information benefits to the public. Moving to electronic transactions and electronic
signatures often can make the related information more accessible to the public and Freedom of
Information Act requests.
(6) Improved security. Designed, implemented, and managed properly, electronic transactions
can have fewer opportunities for fraud and more robust security measures than paper and
(7) Extensive security for highly sensitive information. Even though implementing a more
secure electronic signature option often is more expensive initially than implementing less
secure alternatives, there could be larger expected benefits if the information being protected
is particularly sensitive.
b. What are examples of benefits from electronic signatures and transactions? The following
examples highlight agencies' experience in gaining significant benefits from electronic
transactions and electronic signatures.
(1) The Internal Revenue Service uses electronic identification to strengthen validation by
incorporating electronic links between the user and preexisting data about that user in the
agency's records in its TeleFile program. It enables selected taxpayers to file 1040EZs with a
touch-tone phone. Taxpayers get Customer Service Numbers (CSNs, i.e., PINs) that they then
use to sign their returns and which help to validate their identities to the agency. Even though
a CSN is not unique to an individual taxpayer (since it is only five digits long), the IRS
authenticates the filer by using other identifying factors, such as the taxpayer's date of birth,
taxpayer identification number, and by using additional procedures. This approach is not used
over the Internet. Instead, it occurs in short-term connections over telephone lines, an
environment where it is comparatively difficult for persons to eavesdrop and steal information
or substitute false information.
(2) Taxpayers who transmit their tax returns electronically give high marks to the Internal
Revenue Service's electronic filing programs. The American Customer Satisfaction Index
(ACSI) shows customer satisfaction scores for IRS e-file exceed those for both the government
and retail sectors and rival those of the financial services sector. For electronic tax return filers,
the overall ACSI customer satisfaction index is 74. This surpasses the rating among paper return
filers and compares with a government-wide satisfaction rating of 68.6. In addition, 78% of
customers with electronic filing experiences say they are more satisfied now than two years ago.
Other benefits of the electronic filing program include:
(a) Refunds are received in half the time and even faster with Direct Deposit.
(b) Its accuracy rate of over 99% reduces the chance of getting an error notice from the IRS.
(c) It provides an IRS acknowledgment within 48 hours that the return has been received.
(3) The General Services Administration, Federal Technology Service conducted the FTS2001
Procurement in a totally paperless environment. Beginning with the Request for Proposals (RFP)
release, which was digitally signed and posted on the internet along with a utility for verifying the
signature, through the issuance of the contracts to the winning bidders in an electronic signing
ceremony, no paper changed hands at any time during the process. Bids from the offerors were
delivered on a single CD, in contrast with the previous FTS2000 solicitation that required several
pallets of documentation for each submission. It is estimated that the paper equivalent of this bid
would have resulted in a stack of paper approximately 5 stories high. This electronic process
resulted in efficiencies and savings to the government of approximately $1,500,000 in time
previously required to process paperwork. The paperless process was enabled by issuing each
potential bidder a cryptographically-based digital signature certificate housed on a hardware
(4) EDGAR, the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system, performs automated
collection, validation, indexing, acceptance, and forwarding of submissions by companies and
others who are required by law to file forms with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
(SEC). Its primary purpose is to increase the efficiency and fairness of the securities market for
the benefit of investors, corporations, and the economy by accelerating the receipt, acceptance,
dissemination, and analysis of time-sensitive corporate information filed with the agency. Other
(a) Elimination of the burdens and delays associated with microfiching 10-12 million pages of
information annually in a paper format.
(b) Free SEC web site experiences over half a million hits daily, many from individuals trying to
improve the quality of their investment decisions by examining disclosure documents. Prior to
EDGAR, individuals simply could not afford the typical, minimum cost of $25 per document.
(c) Full search capability allows improved ability to identify incidents of new or unusual
conditions in the reports that are filed and allow rapid access to the information.
(5) The U.S. Customs Service automated much of the information transactions with its import-export partners. It has allowed improved accuracy, efficiency, speed, and the ability to analyze
the electronically filed data which has led to enforcement improvements. The Automated
Commercial System (ACS) is the system used to track, control, and process all commercial goods
imported into the United States. ACS facilitates merchandise processing, significantly cuts costs,
and reduces paperwork requirements for both Customs and the trade community.
Section 5. What risk factors should agencies consider in planning and implementing electronic
signatures or electronic transactions?
Properly implemented electronic signature technologies can offer degrees of confidence in
authenticating identity that are greater than a handwritten signature can offer. These digital
tools should be used to control risks in a cost-effective manner. In determining whether an
electronic signature is sufficiently reliable for a particular purpose, agency risk analyses need
at a minimum to consider the relationships between the parties, the value of the transaction,
the risk of intrusion, and the likely need for accessible, persuasive information regarding the
transaction at some later date. In addition, agencies should consider any other risks relevant to
the particular process. Once these factors are considered separately, an agency should
consider them together to evaluate the sensitivity to risk of a particular process, relative to the
benefit that the process can bring.
a. What is the relationship between the parties? Agency transactions fall into seven general
categories, each of which may be vulnerable to differing security risks:
(1) Intra-agency transactions (i.e., those which remain within the same Federal agency).
(2) Inter-agency transactions (i.e., those between Federal agencies).
(3) Transactions between a Federal agency and state or local government agencies.
(4) Transactions between a Federal agency and a private organization such as: contractor,
business, university, non-profit organization, or other entity.
(5) Transactions between a Federal agency and a member of the general public.
(6) Transactions between a Federal agency and a foreign government, foreign private
organization, or foreign citizen.
Risks tend to be relatively low in cases where there is an ongoing relationship between the
parties. Generally speaking, there will be little risk of a partner later repudiating inter- or intra-governmental transactions of a relatively routine nature, and almost no risk of the governmental
trading partner committing fraud. Similarly, transactions between a regulatory agency and a
publicly traded corporation or other known entity regulated by that agency can often bear a
relatively low risk of repudiation or fraud, particularly where the regulatory agency has an
ongoing relationship with, and enforcement authority over, the entity. For the same reasons, risks
tend to be relatively low within rulemaking contexts, as all parties can view the submissions of
others so the risk of imposture is minimized. Other types of transactions, involving an ongoing
relationship between an agency and non-governmental entities and persons, can have varying
degrees of risk depending on the nature of the relationship between the parties; the same would
apply in the case of those Federal programs in which the ongoing relationship is between entities
that are acting (and collecting information under the PRA) on behalf of an agency and such non-governmental entities and persons -- e.g., transactions between a lender, guaranty agency, or other
institution participating in a Federal loan or financial aid program and another program
participant or a member of the general public, such as a borrower or grant recipient. On the other
hand, the highest risk of fraud or repudiation is for a one-time transaction between a person and
an agency that has legal or financial implications. Agencies should also pay attention to
transactions with non-Federal entities, where the agency has a law enforcement responsibility but
does not have an ongoing relationship. Transactions between a Federal agency and a foreign
entity may entail unique legal risks due to varying national laws and regulations. In all cases, the
relative value of the transaction needs to be considered as well.
b. What is the value of the transaction? Agency transactions fall into five general categories,
each of which may be vulnerable to different security risks:
(1) Transactions involving the transfer of funds.
(2) Transactions where the parties commit to actions or contracts that may give rise to
financial or legal liability.
(3) Transactions involving information protected under the Privacy Act or other agency-specific statutes, or information with national security sensitivity, obliging that access to the
information be restricted.
(4) Transactions where the party is fulfilling a legal responsibility which, if not performed,
creates a legal liability (criminal or civil).
(5) Transactions where no funds are transferred, no financial or legal liability is involved and
no privacy or confidentiality issues are implicated.
Agency risk analyses should attempt to identify the relative value of the type of transaction
being automated and factor that against the costs associated with implementing technological
and management controls to mitigate risk. Note that the value of the transaction depends on
the perspective of the agency and the transaction partner. In general, electronic signatures are
least necessary in very low value transactions and need not be used unless specifically
required by law or regulation (i.e. #5). Where authentication is necessary, the method of
electronic signature should be appropriate to the level of risk.
c. What is the risk of intrusion? The probability of a security intrusion on the transaction can
depend on the benefit to the potential attackers and their knowledge that the transaction will
take place. Agency transactions fall into three categories:
(1) Regular or periodic transactions between parties are at a higher risk than intermittent
transactions because of their predictability, causing higher likelihood that an outside party
would know of the scheduled transaction and be prepared to intrude on it.
(2) The value of the information to outside parties could also determine their motivation to
compromise the information. Information relatively unimportant to an agency may have high
value to an outside party.
(3) Certain agencies, because of their perceived image or mission, may be more likely to be
attacked independent of the information or transaction. The act of disruption can be an end in
d. What is the likely need for accessible, persuasive information regarding the transaction at a
later point? Agency transactions fall into seven general categories:
(1) Transactions where the information generated will be used for a short time and discarded;
(2) Transactions where the information generated may later be subject to audit or compliance;
(3) Transactions where the information will be used for research, program evaluation, or other
(4) Transactions where the information generated may later be subject to dispute by one of the
parties (or alleged parties) to the transaction;
(5) Transactions where the information generated may later be subject to dispute by a non-party to the transaction;
(6) Transactions where the information generated may later be needed as proof in court;
(7) Transactions where the information generated will be archived later as permanently
When analyzing the benefits of converting from paper systems to electronic systems, agencies
should reflect on what information would be lost in the conversion, e.g., an envelope
containing a postmark and the sender's fingerprints and handwriting, or the specific questions
that were asked on a questionnaire. Agencies should determine whether collecting the
potentially lost information is truly important and whether an electronic system could cost-effectively collect and store similarly useful information.
In some paper transactions requiring a party's signature, the signature both identifies the party
and establishes that party's intent to submit a truthful answer. Sometimes a notary or other
third party signs as witness to the signature. When converting these transactions to electronic
systems, agencies should ensure that the selected technology and its implementation are able
to provide similar functions.
Section 6. What privacy and disclosure issues affect electronic signatures and electronic
Section 1708 of GPEA limits the use of information collected in electronic signature services
to communications with a Federal agency. It directs agencies and their staff and contractors
not to use such information for any purpose other than for facilitating the communication.
Exceptions exist if the person (or entity) that is the subject of the information provides
affirmative consent to the additional use of the information, or if such additional use is
otherwise provided by law. Accordingly, agencies should follow several privacy principles:
a. Electronic signatures should only be required where needed. Many transactions do not
need, and should not require, identifying or other information about an individual. For
example, individuals generally should not be required to provide personal information in
order to download public documents.
b. When electronic signatures are required for a transaction, agencies should not collect more
information from the user than is required for the application of the electronic signature.
When appropriate, agencies are encouraged to use methods of electronic signing that do not
require individuals to disclose their identity. This includes the ability of individuals in a
group to be identified by a group identifier rather than an individual identifier if the only
information needed to authenticate is the fact that that the individual is a member of the
c. Users should be able to decide how, when, and what type of electronic authentication to use
of those made available by the agency. If none are acceptable the user should be able to opt
out to a paper process. If a user wants a certain mechanism for authentication to apply only to
a single agency or to a single type of transaction, the user's desires should be honored, if
practicable. Conversely, if the user wishes the authentication to work with multiple agencies
or for multiple types of transactions, that should also be permitted where practicable.
Specifically, it should be consistent with how the agency employs such means of
authentication and with relevant statute and regulation and only if it conforms to practicable
costs and risks.
d. Agencies should ensure, and users should be informed, that information collected for the
purpose of issuing or using electronic means of authentication will be managed and protected
in accordance with applicable requirements under the Privacy Act, the Computer Security
Act, and any agency-specific statute mandating the protection of such information, as well as
with any relevant Executive Branch and agency specific privacy policies.
Section 7. What are current electronic signature technologies?
Questions regarding the following should be directed to the Department of Commerce. This
section addresses two categories of security: 1) Non-cryptographic methods of authenticating
identity; and 2) cryptographic control methods. The non-cryptographic approach relies solely
on an identification and authentication mechanism that must be linked to a specific software
platform for each application. Cryptographic controls may be used for multiple applications, if
properly managed, and may encompass both authentication and encryption services. A highly
secure implementation may combine both categories of technologies. The spectrum of
electronic signature technologies currently available is described below.
a. Non-Cryptographic Methods of Authenticating Identity
(1) Personal Identification Number (PIN) or password: A user accessing an agency's
electronic application is requested to enter a "shared secret" (called "shared" because it is
known both to the user and to the system), such as a password or PIN. When the user of a
system enters her name, she also enters a password or PIN. The system checks that password
or PIN against data in a database to ensure its correctness and thereby "authenticates" the user.
If the authentication process is performed over an open network such as the Internet, it is
usually essential that at least the shared secret be encrypted. This task can be accomplished
by using a technology called Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which uses a combination of public
key technology and symmetric cryptography to automatically encrypt information as it is sent
over the Internet by the user and decrypt it before it is read by the intended recipient. SSL
currently is built into almost all popular Web browsers, in such a fashion that its use is
transparent to the end user. Assuming the password is protected during transmission, as
described above, impersonating the user requires obtaining the user's password. This may be
relatively easy if users do not follow appropriate guidelines for password creation and use.
Agencies should establish adequate guidelines for password creation and protection.
(2) Smart Card: A smart card is a plastic card the size of a credit card containing an embedded
integrated circuit or "chip" that can generate, store, and/or process data. It can be used to
facilitate various authentication technologies also embedded on the same card. By having
different authentication choices the user can pick the authentication technique that meets but
does not exceed the information requirement for the transaction. A user inserts the smart card
into a card reader device attached to a computer or network input device. Information from the
card's chip is provided to the computer only when the user also enters a PIN, password, or
biometric identifier recognized by the card. Thus, the user authenticates to the card, making
available electronic credentials which can then be used by the computer or network to
strongly authenticate the user for transactions. This method offers far greater security than the
typical use of a PIN or password, because the shared secret is between the user and the card,
not with a remote server or network device. Moreover, to impersonate the user requires
possession of the card as well as knowledge of the shared secret that activates the electronic
credentials on the card. Thus, proper security requires that the card and the PIN or password
used to activate it be kept separate. This is not a concern if a biometric is used for the latter
(3) Digitized Signature: A digitized signature is a graphical image of a handwritten signature.
Some applications require an individual to create his or her hand-written signature using a
special computer input device, such as a digital pen and pad. The digitized representation of
the entered signature may then be compared to a previously-stored copy of a digitized image
of the handwritten signature. If special software judges both images comparable, the signature
is considered valid. This application of technology shares the same security issues as those
using the PIN or password approach, because the digitized signature is another form of shared
secret known both to the user and to the system. The digitized signature can be more reliable
for authentication than a password or PIN because there is a biometric component to the
creation of the image of the handwritten signature. Forging a digitized signature can be more
difficult than forging a paper signature since the technology digitally compares the submitted
signature image with the known signature image, and is better than the human eye at making
such comparisons. The biometric elements of a digitized signature, which help make it
unique, are in measuring how each stroke is made - duration, pen pressure, etc. As with all
shared secret techniques, compromise of a digitized signature image or characteristics file
could pose a security (impersonation) risk to users.
(4) Biometrics: Individuals have unique physical characteristics that can be converted into
digital form and then interpreted by a computer. Among these are voice patterns (where an
individual's spoken words are converted into a special electronic representation), fingerprints,
and the blood vessel patterns present on the retina (or rear) of one or both eyes. In this
technology, the physical characteristic is measured (by a microphone, optical reader, or some
other device), converted into digital form, and then compared with a copy of that
characteristic stored in the computer and authenticated beforehand as belonging to a particular
person. If the test pattern and the previously stored patterns are sufficiently close (to a degree
which is usually selectable by the authenticating application), the authentication will be
accepted by the software, and the transaction allowed to proceed. Biometric applications can
provide very high levels of authentication especially when the identifier is obtained in the
presence of a third party to verify its authenticity, but as with any shared secret, if the digital
form is compromised, impersonation becomes a serious risk. Thus, just like PINs, such
information should not be sent over open networks unless it is encrypted. Moreover,
measurement and recording of a physical characteristic could raise privacy concerns where the
biometric identification data is shared by two or more entities. Further, if compromised,
substituting a different, new biometric identifier may have limitations (e.g., you may need to
employ the fingerprint of a different finger). Biometric authentication is best suited for access
to devices, e.g. to access a computer hard drive or smart card, and less suited for
authentication to software systems over open networks.
b. Cryptographic Control
Creating electronic signatures may involve the use of cryptography in two ways: symmetric
(or shared private key) cryptography, or asymmetric (public key/private key) cryptography.
The latter is used in producing digital signatures, discussed further below.
(1) Shared Symmetric Key Cryptography
In shared symmetric key approaches, the user signs a document and verifies the signature
using a single key (consisting of a long string of zeros and ones) that is not publicly known, or
is secret. Since the same key does these two functions, it must be transferred from the signer
to the recipient of the message. This situation can undermine confidence in the authentication
of the user's identity because the symmetric key is shared between sender and recipient and
therefore is no longer unique to one person. Since the symmetric key is shared between the
sender and possibly many recipients, it is not private to the sender and hence has lesser value
as an authentication mechanism. This approach offers no additional cryptographic strength
over digital signatures (see below). Further, digital signatures avoid the need for the shared
(2) Public/Private Key (Asymmetric) Cryptography - Digital Signatures
(a) To produce a digital signature, a user has his or her computer generate two mathematically
linked keys -- a private signing key that is kept private, and a public validation key that is
available to the public. The private key cannot be deduced from the public key. In practice,
the public key is made part of a "digital certificate," which is a specialized electronic file
digitally signed by the issuer of the certificate, binding the identity of the individual to his or
her private key in an unalterable fashion. The whole system that implements digital
signatures and allows them to be used with specific programs to offer secure communications
is called a Public Key Infrastructure, or PKI.
(b) A "digital signature" is created when the owner of a private signing key uses that key to
create a unique mark (the signature) on an electronic document or file. The recipient employs
the owner's public key to validate that the signature was generated with the associated private
key. This process also verifies that the document was not altered. Since the public and private
keys are mathematically linked, the pair is unique: only the public key can validate signatures
made using the corresponding private key. If the private key has been properly protected from
compromise or loss, the signature is unique to the individual who owns it, that is, the owner
cannot repudiate the signature. In relatively high-risk transactions, there is always a concern
that the user will claim some else made the transaction. With public key technology, this
concern can be mitigated. To claim he did not make the transaction, the user would have to
feign loss of the private key. By creating and holding the private key on a smart card or an
equivalent device, and by using a biometric mechanism (rather than a PIN or password) as the
shared secret between the user and the smart card for unlocking the private key to create a
signature this concern can be mitigated. In other words, combining two or three distinct
electronic signature technology approaches in a single implementation can enhance the
security of the interaction and lower the potential for fraud to almost zero. Furthermore, by
establishing clear procedures for a particular implementation of digital signature technology,
so that all parties know what the obligations, risks, and consequences are, agencies can also
strengthen the effectiveness of a digital signature solution.
The reliability of the digital signature is directly proportional to the degree of confidence one
has in the link between the owner's identity and the digital certificate, how well the owner has
protected the private key from compromise or loss, and the cryptographic strength of the
methodology used to generate the public-private key pair. The cryptographic strength is
affected by key length and by the characteristics of the algorithm used to encrypt the
information. Further information on digital signatures can be found in "Access with Trust"
(September 1998) (http://gits-sec.treas.gov/).
c. Technical Considerations of the Various Electronic Signature Alternatives
(1) To be effective, each of these methods requires agencies to develop a series of policy
documents that provide the important underlying framework of trust for electronic
transactions and which facilitate the evaluation of risk. The framework identifies how well the
user's identity is bound to his authenticator (e.g., his password, fingerprint, or private key).
By considering the strength of this binding, the strength of the mechanism itself, and the
sensitivity of the transaction, an agency can determine if the level of risk is acceptable. If an
agency has experience with the technology, existing policies and documents may be available
for use as guidance. Where the technology is new to an agency, this may require additional
(2) While digital signatures (i.e. public key/private key) are generally the most certain method
for assuring identity electronically, the policy documents must be established carefully to
achieve the desired strength of binding. The framework must identify how well the signer's
identity is bound to his or her public key in a digital certificate (identity proofing). The
strength of this binding depends on the assumption that only the owner has sole possession of
the unique private key used to make signatures that are validated with the public key. The
strength of this binding also reflects whether the private key is placed on a highly secure
hardware token, such as a smart card, or is encapsulated in software only; and how difficult it
is for a malefactor to deduce the private key using cryptographic methods (which depends
upon the key length and the cryptographic strength of the key-generating algorithm).
A Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is one mechanism to support the binding of public keys
with the user's identity. A PKI can provide the entire policy and technical framework for the
systematic and diligent issuance, management and revocation of digital certificates, so that
users who wish to rely on someone's certificate have a firm basis to check that the certificate
has not been maliciously altered, and to confirm that it remains active (i.e., has not been
revoked because of loss or compromise of the corresponding private key). This same
infrastructure provides the basis for interoperability among different agencies or entities, so
that a person's digital certificate can be accepted for transactions by organizations external to
the one that issued it.
(3) By themselves, digitized (not digital) signatures, PINs, biometric identifiers, and other
shared secrets do not directly bind identity to the contents of a document as do digital
signatures which actually use the document information to make the signature. For shared
secrets to bind the user's identity to the document, they must be used in conjunction with
some other mechanism. Biometric identifiers such as retinal patterns used in conjunction with
digital signatures can offer far greater proof of identify than pen and ink signatures.
(4) While not as robust as biometric identifiers and digital signatures, PINs have the decided
advantage of proven customer and citizen acceptance, as evidenced by the universal use of
PINs for automated teller machine transactions. PINs combined with encrypted Internet
sessions, particularly through the use of Secure Sockets Layer technology on the World Wide
Web, are very popular for retail consumer transactions requiring credit card or other personal
authenticating information. This may well be suited for a variety of government applications.
Also, secure Web browsers are increasingly being designed to accommodate digital
signatures, making this approach a possible interim step towards implementing the more
robust authentication provided by digital signatures.
(5) It is important to remember that technical factors are but one aspect to be considered when
an agency plans to implement electronic signature-based applications. Other important aspects
are considered in the following sections.
Section 8. How should agencies implement electronic signatures and electronic transactions?
After the agency has conducted the assessment and identified an appropriate electronic
signature technology alternative that may be used to secure an automated business process,
the agency will proceed to implement this decision. For any electronic transaction, agencies
should collect and record adequate information regarding the content, process, and identities
of the parties involved. In doing so, agencies should consider the following:
a. Build from a policy framework. GPEA applies to interactions between outside entities and
the Federal government, as well as to transactions and record keeping required by parties
under Federal programs. Accordingly, agencies should consider whether their policies or
programmatic regulations support the use and enforceability of electronic signature
alternatives to handwritten signatures as well as to electronic record keeping under Federal
programs. If necessary, agencies should develop a strategy to make any revisions needed to
achieve this goal. In addition, by clearly informing the transaction partners that electronic
signatures and records will be acceptable and used for enforcement purposes, their legal
standing is enhanced. Several agencies have already chosen to promulgate policies or
regulations on this issue, including:
1) Securities and Exchange Commission (17 C.F.R. Part 232), electronic regulatory filings;
2) Environmental Protection Agency (55 Fed. Reg. 31,030 (1990)), policy on electronic
3) Food and Drug Administration (21 C.F.R. Part 11), electronic signatures and records;
4) Internal Revenue Service (Treasury Reg. 301.6061-1), signature alternatives for tax filings;
5) Federal Acquisition Regulation (48 C.F.R. Parts 2 and 4), electronic contracts;
6) General Services Acquisition Regulation (48 C.F.R. Part 552.216-73), electronic orders;
7) Federal Property Management Regulations (41 C.F.R. Part 101-41), electronic bills of
8) Administrative Committee of the Federal Register (1 C.F.R. Part 18.7), electronic signatures
on documents submitted for publication in the Federal Register.
9) Commodity Futures Trading Commission (17 C.F.R. Part 1.4 and Part 1.3(tt)), electronic
signatures for filings.
When specifying the requirements for electronic record keeping by regulated entities or
government business partners (e.g. contractors or grantees), particularly the maintenance of
electronic forms pertaining to employees by employers, agencies should consult the
"Performance Guideline for the Legal Acceptance of Records Produced by Information
Technology Systems," developed by the Association for Information and Image Management
(ANSI/AIIM TR31). This set of documents offers suggestions for maximizing the likelihood
that electronically filed and stored records will be accorded full legal recognition. If an agency
chooses to use digital signature technology, a regulation might specify that each individual
will be issued a unique digital signature certificate to use, agree to keep the private key
confidential, agree to accept responsibility for anything that is submitted using that key, or
accept other conditions under which the agency will accept electronic submissions.
b. Where necessary, use a mutually understood, signed agreement between the person or entity
submitting the electronically-signed information and the receiving Federal agency.
As a matter of efficiency, arrangements with large numbers of customers may be best
accomplished by setting forth an agency's terms and conditions in a policy or regulation.
Arrangements with smaller numbers of customers may lend themselves to one or more
agreements, using a document referred to as a "terms and conditions" agreement. These
agreements can ensure that all conditions of submission and receipt of data electronically are
known and understood by the submitting parties. This is particularly the case where terms and
conditions are not spelled out in agency programmatic regulations.
c. Minimize the likelihood of repudiation.
Agencies should develop well-documented mechanisms and procedures to tie transactions to an
individual in a legally binding way. For example, the integrity of even the most secure digital
signature rests on the continuing confidentiality of the private key, so instituting procedures for
ensuring the confidentiality of the private key would be in an agency's interest. Similarly, in the
case of electronic signatures based on the use of shared secrets like PINs or passwords, the
integrity of the transaction depends on the user not disclosing the shared secret, so an agency
should have procedures for encouraging the maintenance of the PIN's integrity. If a defendant is
later charged with a crime based on an electronically signed document, he or she would have
every incentive to show a lack of control over (or loss of) the private key or PIN, or in the case of
a PIN, that the government failed to protect the PIN on its computer system. Indeed, if that
defendant plans to commit fraud, he or she may intentionally compromise the secrecy of the key
or PIN, so that the government would later have a more difficult time uniquely linking him or her
to the electronic transaction. Promulgating policies and procedures that ensure the integrity of
security tools helps counter such fraudulent attempts.
Thus, transactions which appear to be at high risk for fraud, e.g., one-time high-value
transactions with persons not previously known to an agency, may require extra safeguards or
may not be appropriate for electronic transactions. One way to mitigate this risk might be to
require that private keys be generated and kept on hardware tokens, making possession of the
token a critical requirement. Another way to guard against fraud is to include other identifying
data in the transaction that links the key or PIN to the individual, preferably something not
readily available to others.
It is also important to establish that the user of the digital signature or PIN/password is fully
aware of obligations he or she is agreeing to by signing at the time of signature. This can be
ensured by programming appropriate ceremonial banners into the software application that
alert the individual of the gravity of the action she is about to undertake. The presence of such
banners can later be used to demonstrate to a court that the user was fully informed of and
aware of what he or she was signing.
d. Carefully control access to the electronic data, after receipt, yet make it available in a
meaningful and timely fashion. Security measures should be in place that ensure that no one is
able to alter a transaction, or substitute something in its place, once it has been received by the
agency unless the alteration is a valid correction contained in an electronically certified re-transmission. This can be achieved with a digital signature because it binds the identity of the
individual making the signature to the entire document, so any subsequent change would be
detected. Thus, the receiving agency needs to take prudent steps to control access to the
electronic transaction through such methods as limiting access to the computer database
containing the transaction, and performing processing with the data using copies of the
transaction rather than the original. The information may be needed for audits, disputes, or
court cases many years after the transaction itself took place. Agencies should make plans for
storing data and providing meaningful and timely access to it for as long as such access will
e. Ensure the "Chain of Custody." Electronic audit trails must provide a chain of custody for
the secure electronic transaction that identifies sending location, sending entity, date and time
stamp of receipt, and other measures used to ensure the integrity of the document. These trails
must be sufficiently complete and reliable to validate the integrity of the transaction and to
prove, a) that the connection between the submitter and the receiving agency has not been
tampered with, and b) how the document was controlled upon receipt.
f. Consider providing an acknowledgment of receipt. The agency's system for receiving
electronic transactions may be required by statute to have a mechanism for acknowledging
receipt of transactions received and acknowledging confirmation of transactions sent, with
specific indication of the party with whom the agency is dealing.
g. Obtain legal counsel during the design of the system. Collection and use of electronic data
may raise legal issues, particularly if it is information that bears on the legality of the process,
may eventually be needed for proof in court, or involves questions of privacy, confidentiality,
Section 9. Summary of the procedures and checklist.
To summarize the process and restate the principles that agencies should employ to evaluate
authentication mechanisms (electronic signatures) for electronic transactions and documents,
the following steps apply:
a. Examine the current business process that is being considered for conversion to employ
electronic documents, forms or transactions, identifying customer needs and demands as well
as the existing risks associated with fraud, error or misuse.
b. Identify the benefits that may accrue from the use of electronic transactions or documents.
c. Consider what risks may arise from the use of electronic transactions or documents. This
evaluation should take into account the relationships of the parties, the value of the
transactions or documents, and the later need for the documents.
d. Consult with counsel about any agency specific legal implications about the use of
electronic transactions or documents in the particular application.
e. Evaluate how each electronic signature alternative may minimize risk compared to the costs
incurred in adopting an alternative.
f. Determine whether any electronic signature alternative, in conjunction with appropriate
process controls, represents a practicable trade-off between benefits on the one hand and cost
and risk on the other. If so, determine, to the extent possible at the time, which signature
alternative is the best one. Document this determination to allow later reevaluation.
g. Develop plans for retaining and disposing of information, ensuring that it can be made
continuously available to those who will need it, for managerial control of sensitive data and
accommodating changes in staffing, and for ensuring adherence to these plans.
h. Develop management strategies to provide appropriate security for physical access to electronic
i. Determine if regulations or policies are adequate to support electronic transactions and
record keeping, or if "terms and conditions" agreements are needed for the particular
application. If new regulations or policies are necessary, disseminate them as appropriate.
j. Seek continuing input of technology experts for updates on the changing state of
technology and the continuing advice of legal counsel for updates on the changing state of the
law in these areas.
k. Integrate these plans into the agency's strategic IT planning and regular reporting to OMB.
l. Perform periodic review and re-evaluation, as appropriate.
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