Seattle Times

Tuesday, July 4, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific 

Inside Technology / Monica Soto
Signing off on the digital John

President Clinton last week signed into law a bill that gives a digital "John Hancock" the same legal force as a handwritten signature. But to call it a signature is a bit misleading. 

It's more like: 


A digital signature is not an electronic snapshot of your physical
signature. When you sign a document online, your name does not
appear in cursive. 

The online version is actually a mathematical formula that creates
two keys: a public key and a private key. 

To sign a mortgage online, Joe Homebuyer would stick a smart
card with his digital signature into a reader device connected to a
keyboard and type in his password. The process would create
what's called a "hash result," a string of letters and numbers that
authenticate the user. 

Gary Chadwick, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing
for Seattle-based ID Certify, said the sender's signature and
document are melded together. After a document is signed
digitally, it can't be altered. 

The receiver can verify the sender by clicking on the signature. ID
Certify keeps a repository of signatures. If the "hash result"
doesn't match, it'll say so. 

"That provides for a legally defensible product or document,"
Chadwick said. 

This means consumers will be able to hire a lawyer, sign a
mortgage, open a brokerage account or sign an insurance contract
- all online. 

In the corporate world, professionals may receive credentials to
transact legal business online. For instance, a doctor may use a
digital signature to schedule an MRI or prescribe medicine for a

The state of Minnesota, an ID Certify client, now issues digital
signature certificates to government employees via its office of the
Secretary of State. Gov. Jesse Ventura went so far as to create
Digital Signature Day. 

A kit costs $149 and comes with a smart card that contains your
digital signature, the reader device and the software. ID Certify
charges the signer roughly $1 per transaction. 

Meanwhile, the federal measure takes effect Oct. 1. Companies
may begin retaining legal records such as mortgages and financial
securities electronically next March. 

At the bill's signing, held at Congress Hall, not far from where the
Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were
signed, Clinton told onlookers they would marvel one day that a
digital signature was considered a big deal. 

Clinton used a smart card encoded with his signature to sign the
bill. He used the code name "Buddy," the name of his dog, to
unlock the presidential signature on his screen. 

No small feat. 

Only let us hope he has a better password than "Buddy" at work. 

Appointed: The University of Washington named Professor Ed
Lazowska, internationally recognized for his work on the design
and analysis of advanced computer systems, to the first Bill &
Melinda Gates Endowed Chair in Computer Science. 

Two endowed chairs in the department of computer science and
engineering were created through a $3 million gift from the Bill &
Melinda Gates Foundation announced in October. Lazowska's
appointment begins this month. 

Monica Soto's phone message number is 206-515-5632.