Digital Signatures Capital

Way, way back in February 1995, Utah became the first state to pass a law deeming digital signatures as valid, legally, as ye olde John Hancock. Although most states have since followed suit — the tally is up to 44 — Utah’s prescience has given the state a cottage industry in electronic transactions. The state’s payoff for the 1995 law is that some of the nation’s certificate authorities are based here — the USERTRUST Network, Arcanvs, and Digital Signature Trust. And the next generation is being sowed, as application developers such as iLumin build commerce tools that will help digital signatures take off.

But digital signatures are just for encryption geeks, right? Wrong. They are a key missing link for a seamless electronic marketplace. Secure medical records, digital cash systems, protection against identity theft, electronic voting — these near-future scenarios require reliable and digital proof that you are who you say you are. Says Tom Smedinghoff, chair of the American Bar Association’s section of science and technology, “Ultimately it’s going to permeate everything that we do.”

But Utah? OK, the Beehive State seems an unlikely contender. But three quarters of the state’s 2.1 million citizens live in a swath along the Wasatch Front that’s roughly the size of the state of Delaware. This nexus encourages partnerships and networking, and more than half of Utahans are connected to the Internet. Under Gov. Mike Leavitt, an outspoken technology evangelist, the state has been trying to parlay the 1995 law into “citizen portals” through which citizens can interact with state and local governments. The goal of these portals is succinctly expressed by Robert Stewart, Utah’s digital signature administrator: “No one wants to go to the DMV.”

Leavitt has pushed ambitious legislation that calls for all state agencies to be Net-accessible by July 2002. According to Ric Brown, network manager of state-sponsored e-Utah, the state is building Web-based interfaces that will allow Utah citizens to renew motor vehicle and professional business licenses, file business registration paperwork, buy fishing and hunting permits, and other simple consumer and business services.

That’s a start, but the real payoff is going to come in the form of commerce tools and applications. Look no further than iLumin, 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City in Orem. iLumin was co-founded in 1996 by Brent Israelsen, who left Jurisoft and moved to Utah to build a system for filing court documents electronically. The court project is now operational (the first fully digital deed was filed in the Utah County Recorder’s Office using iLumin’s XML application framework, and digital signatures provided by Digital Signatures Trust last September), and the company is talking with the financial and real estate industries, as well as with corporations such as Intel and AT&T, about commercial applications for its technology. Within a few months company officials expect to close the nation’s first fully paperless house sale.

“We couldn’t have done it in California, we couldn’t have done it in New York,” says Israelsen. “It’s a small enough community, we’ve got strong enough leadership that’s technology savvy, and the right mix of people. We couldn’t have done it anywhere else.”

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