Pennsylvania is the latest state pushing measures to ensure that Net users are, in fact, who they say they are.
Backed by Gov. Tom Ridge's administration, state Sen. Melissa Hart (R-Allegheny) introduced the Electronic Transaction Act to encourage the use of digital signatures, which industry regulators around the globe believe will bolster e-commerce.
Under most plans, digital signatures, which are secured by encryption and can be attached to emails and other digital documents, are handed out by a "certificate authority" that takes steps to verify a person's true identity.
Some authorities may require that an applicant show up in person, with a driver's license and other IDs, in order to get a signature. Others authorities, such as financial institutions, already have personally identifiable data on file and may give out certificates as an added service.
Pennsylvania, for one, joins 40 other states in drafting legislation to legitimize the technology, which help prove that a message or document has not been intercepted or altered. Arizona, Tennessee, Oregon, and Nebraska also pushed bills this month.
The Pennsylvania bill states that electronic records, signatures, contracts, and communication used for government or personal transactions are recognized as legal documents in the state.
"Instead of being prescriptive and approving certain types of electronic signatures, this legislation allows for more flexibility and remains technology neutral," Pennsylvania's secretary of administration, Thomas Paese, said in a statement.
The bill establishes basic criteria for the use of digital signatures. For example, the signatures may not be used for a living will or health care power of attorney.
The act also states that the secretary of state will set standards to certify digital signature houses to ensure that they secure the personal information they collect.
But worldwide, the legality and reliability of the nascent technology varies.
For example, the U.N. Commission on International Trade Law has drafted uniform digital signature legislation, but delegates are still wrangling over the ID-checking standards and whether certificate authority should be held liable for giving out a signature to an imposter who uses it to commit fraud in someone else's name.
Last October, President Clinton also signed Sen. Spencer Abraham's (R-Michigan) Government Paperwork Elimination Act to mandate that U.S. agencies accept forms signed with digital signatures. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) submitted a bill this session to provide individuals with access to their health records, and that requires institutions to accept written requests verified by digital signatures.
Despite the variation in digital signature plans, most policymakers see them as a critical factor in developing e-commerce and streamlining government.
"Pennsylvania simply cannot afford to fall behind when it comes to e-commerce," Sam McCullough, the state's community and economic development secretary, said in a statement. "If we commit today to high technology and electronic commerce, we will be rewarded tomorrow with more good, family-sustaining jobs for Pennsylvanians. Sen. Hart's legislation does that."