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Electronic Records Management Guidelines

Electronic and Digital Signatures

Summary

The advent of e-government and e-services has changed the way state agencies and local government offices do business. As a result, electronic systems and processes have become as important as traditional paper and ink. In a paper environment, a hand signature, also known as a “wet signature,” authorizes and authenticates the content of a document. A signature provides a level of trustworthiness and accountability that aids the conduct of business. Electronic signatures extend the function of handwritten signatures to electronic documents, providing a way for two parties to conduct business confidently in an electronic environment.  Up-to-date technologies and procedures must meet the demand for trustworthiness where hand signatures are not viable.

Since signatures derive their primary importance from their legal and evidentiary value, these concerns must drive the selection of electronic signature technologies. Consequently, each agency will need to define its legal and evidentiary needs in relation to its business processes before choosing an electronic signature application.

Furthermore, the electronic signature application selected must fit the agency’s technology architecture to create, preserve, and make available its records. Technical obstacles pose great challenges to the long-term preservation of electronic signatures. Policy regarding the preservation of signatures should be adopted by each agency to ensure consistent practice across the organization.

 

Legal Framework

Many government agencies have unique and specific legislative mandates that apply to them and their functions.  Two chapters of the Minnesota statutes in particular apply to electronic signatures, Chapters 325L and 325K. 

  • Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) [Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 325L] addresses the issues of the legal admissibility of electronic records created in a trustworthy manner and the application of the paper-oriented legal system to electronic records.
  • The Minnesota Electronic Authentication Act [Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 325K] defines an electronic signature uniquely in terms of digital signature using Public Key Infrastructure technology (PKI).  This type of digital signature is: a transformation of a message using an asymmetric cryptosystem such that a person receiving the initial message and having the signer's public key can accurately determine: (1) whether the transformation was created using the private key that corresponds to the signer's public key; and (2) whether the initial message has been altered since the transformation was made.

Each agency should their specific statutory requirements before making any choices about electronic signature technologies. 

In addition to state laws, agencies must adhere to federal laws such as:

  • Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-Sign), a federal law that addresses the issues of the legal admissibility of electronic records created in a trustworthy manner and the application of the paper-oriented legal system to electronic records. (Federal version of UETA.)
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, HIPAA.  This act is concerned with non-repudiation. Non-repudiation “provides assurance of the origin or delivery of data,” so that the sender cannot deny sending a message and the receiver cannot deny receiving it. This prevents either party from modifying or breaking a legal relationship unilaterally. HIPAA holds that only a digital signature technology can currently provide that assurance.

For more information on the legal issues you must consider when considering using electronic signature technology, including what constitutes a government record, refer to the Legal Framework chapter of these guidelines and the Minnesota State Archives’ Preserving and Disposing of Government Records.

 

Key Concepts

When selecting and implementing an electronic signature technology, keep in mind:

 

Functions of Signatures

In general, signatures serve specific functions. The American Bar Association enumerates these as:

  • Evidence: A signature authenticates a writing by identifying the signer with the signed document. When the signer makes a mark in a distinctive manner, the writing becomes attributable to the signer.
  • Ceremony: The act of signing a document calls to the signer's attention the legal significance of the signer's act, and thereby helps prevent inconsiderate engagements.
  • Approval: In certain contexts defined by law or custom, a signature expresses the signer's approval or authorization of the writing, or the signer's intention that it have legal effect.
  • Efficiency and logistics: A signature on a written document often imparts a sense of clarity and finality to the transaction, and may lessen the subsequent need to inquire beyond the face of a document. Negotiable instruments, for example, rely upon formal requirements, including a signature, for their ability to change hands with ease, rapidity, and minimal interruption.

An electronic signature will have to fulfill some or all of these functions. You should determine which are pertinent to your business processes before selecting a particular electronic signature technology.

 

Definitions of Signatures

Using Minnesota Statutes the traditional definition of a signature is as follows:

The signature of a person, when required by law, (a) must be in the handwriting of the person or, (b) if the person is unable to write, (i) the person's mark or name written by another at the request and in the presence of the person or, (ii) by a rubber stamp facsimile of the person's actual signature, mark, or a signature of the person's name or a mark made by another and adopted for all purposes of signature by the person with a motor disability and affixed in the person's presence.

A reliance on the definition above would make it virtually impossible to use technology to deliver services and to meet all legal and evidentiary requirements. To address this problem, and to provide a standard approach to the use of electronic signatures, Minnesota adopted the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) in the 2000 legislative session.

UETA defines electronic signatures as:

An electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.

This definition is not technology specific, and so does not mandate the adoption of any particular hardware or software application. Any technology, theoretically, that could authenticate the signer and the signed document could generate a legally admissible signature, as long as the parties could demonstrate the trustworthiness of the process that created and preserved the records in question.

In many communities there is no distinction made between the terms ‘electronic’ and ‘digital’, especially among information technology communities where “electronic” and “digital” are used synonymously and interchangeably.  However, in Minnesota law there is a clear legal distinction made between electronic and digital signatures. 

A digital signature is a particular type of electronic signature that relies on a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology. UETA does not separately define digital signatures but permits their use under the broader definition of electronic signatures. The Minnesota Electronic Authentication Act however does define a digital signature uniquely in terms of PKI. A digital signature is:

A transformation of a message using an asymmetric cryptosystem such that a person having the initial message and the signer's public key can accurately determine: (1) whether the transformation was created using the private key that corresponds to the signer's public key; and (2) whether the initial message has been altered since the transformation was made.

A digital signature may offer the advantage of providing a unique identifier and linking the signature to the record. It can authenticate both the signer and the signed document, thus meeting legal requirements for admissibility and trustworthiness. PKI technology offers the additional advantages of adaptability to a wide range of applications and compatibility with basic office software.

 

Electronic Signature Technologies

The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) [Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 325L] purposely allows for a wide range of signature technologies. It says, “An electronic record or electronic signature is attributable to a person if it was the act of the person. The act of the person may be shown in any manner, including a showing of the efficacy of any security procedure applied to determine the person to which the electronic record or electronic signature was attributable.”

An example of this is the “click through” option used on many web sites. To order a product, be it a shareware application, an airline ticket, or a book, a web user has to “click through” a page or form that indicates approval of the vendor’s conditions for the sale. The system makes it impossible to transact any business without first establishing that agreement. In this instance, there is no “signature” or anything like it. Instead, the system is designed to make it necessary to move from “A” to “C” only through “B,” with “B” serving as the equivalent of a signature. Authentication is demonstrated by the documentation of the system and its procedures, not by a signed record of a specific, individual transaction.

UETA implicitly legitimates the use of technologies such as faxes, digital imaging, the use of PIN/passwords, and digital signatures, as well as the more exotic iris scans, for electronic signatures. In all cases, the key to demonstrating the trustworthiness of a record and its signature is demonstrating the trustworthiness of the system that creates and manages the record. Having sufficient and appropriate systems documentation is the only way to establish that the signature is authentic and reliable. 

Digital signatures demand the use of a specific PKI technology. PKI systems use two different keys. One key is kept secret (the private key) and the other key is made publicly available (the public key). The two keys are generated simultaneously and collectively; they are known as a “key pair.” Once a message has been signed using one of the two keys, it can only be verified by the other key. The resulting digital signature is a cryptographic checksum computed as a function of the message and the signer’s private key.

Because the digital signature is generated as a function of the key and a unique message, the signature serves two purposes. It authenticates the signer, since only the individual owner has (in theory, anyway) access to the private key. It also indicates the reliability and integrity of the message, since any alteration to the text would invalidate the signature.

This is not the same as encryption. PKI technology was originally developed for encryption (as in the Pretty Good Privacy applications), but the use of a digital signature does not automatically encode a message. In fact, encryption is not covered in the Minnesota Electronic Authentication Act [Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 325K], which only addresses the use of PKI for digital signatures.

The effective use of PKI for digital signatures relies on some policy and organizational factors. There has to be some way to guarantee and to prove that a specific person actually owns a specific key. And there has to be some way to provide quick and easy access to public keys. Because it is completely impractical for each sender and each recipient of a message to work this out on a case-by-case basis, the use of PKI for digital signatures is dependent on the operation of certificate authorities.

A certificate authority is an independent, trusted third party who issues and manages key pairs. To get a key pair, individuals must prove to a certificate authority that they are who they claim to be. The certificate authority also provides secure access to public keys that allow for the validation and verification of signatures. The Minnesota Electronic Authentication Act [Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 325K] creates a mechanism to license and regulate certificate authorities.

 

Other Means of Authentication

In addition to electronic and digital signatures, there are other methods of authenticating digital content that may be useful to your agency.  These options are thoroughly discussed in two white papers:  Authentication of Primary Legal Materials and Pricing Options and Authentication Methods

 

Key Issues to Consider

No electronic signature technology in and of itself is sufficient to meet your legal needs. The

  • No electronic signature technology by itself is sufficient to meet all legal needs. The evidentiary value of signed records will ultimately rely on an agency’s ability to produce legally admissible documentation of your recordkeeping system. In addition, the agency will, of course, have to produce the electronic records themselves. Merely preserving and providing access to electronic records present some daunting challenges. Adding electronic signatures to the equation can complicate the situation even further.  
  • Hardware and software obsolescence make it difficult, if not impossible, to preserve and provide long-term or permanent access to both the electronic signature and the associated electronic record. For example, if an agency is using different technologies to create and to sign a record, those technologies might “age” at different rates. In a digital signature (PKI) system, the signature is a function of the content of the document. Due to this relationship, any migration or conversion of the document’s content for preservation will nullify the original digital signature and prevent its use as a means to ensure the authenticity and reliability of that document. Therefore, agencies will need to plan for technology obsolescence of both the record and the signature if long-term preservation of electronic signatures is desirable.
  • Agencies should plan to document their decisions and transactions. Understanding legal needs and addressing them at the design phase of an application are important factors to making this work. Keeping documentation up-to-date is an on-going responsibility, which could be complicated if relying on a third party. For example, when using digital signatures agencies should make sure that the certificate authority is managing its records and documentation adequately.
  • Agencies should make sure that the electronic signature technology is interoperable with their and their constituencies’ other software applications. Requiring complex or expensive solutions is probably not practical. It would be especially difficult to ask citizens to buy and maintain multiple signature technologies. 
  • Agencies should assess risks associated with the use of electronic signature technology and develop a well-documented risk management plan based upon the risks identified.
  • The human side of the equation is critical: no technology will completely address your legal requirements. For example, a digital signature is only as reliable as the certificate authority standing behind it as well as the ability of the users to protect personal certificate information from loss or inappropriate use.

Selecting the appropriate electronic signature technology means defining the most important criteria and then determining if the system and proposed application meet those criteria. The criteria should give priority to legal concerns, since signatures are primarily valuable for evidentiary purposes. A selection decision should also reflect consideration of other factors, such as technology architectures, costs/benefits, agency business practices, and all pertinent policies, hardware, software, controls, and audit procedures.  A specific example of the criteria pertinent to a digital signature application can be found in the American Bar Association’s PKI Assessment Guidelines.

 

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you want to use electronic signatures? What business functions will the technology support?
  • Who will have to use and rely on the electronic signature?
  • How long will the signatures and the records to which the electronic signatures are affixed have to be preserved?Who will have to use and rely on the electronic signature?
  • Which state and federal statutes pertain to the functions and transactions that generate your signed records? What case law is there?
  • How does the electronic signature technology fit into your overall technology architecture? What's the total cost of the technology? What's the cost per transaction?
  • What sort of electronic signature technologies do your customers use? Will you have to share these records with any other organizations or agencies? What technologies do they use?
  • What methodology will you use for documenting your information systems, policies, and practices?

 

Electronic and Digital Signatures, Annotated List of Resources  go to Annotated list of resources

 

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(This is the last chapter.)

 

Electronic Records Management Guidelines, March 2012, Version 5.

Links verified March 12, 2012.