Sign Here: Digital Certificates Simplify University Business

Digital certificates, the electronic equivalent of a handwritten signature, have been legal and available since 2000, when President Clinton signed the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act. Digital signatures allow an organization or individual to transmit legally binding documents via the Internet with embedded signatures that are guaranteed to be authentic. They are in use in various everyday applications: You use them without even realizing it when you order a product from an online retailer or verify your identity to your bank in an online transaction. Digital signatures used in place of hard-copy signatures save time and money and reduce red tape.

Like commercial institutions, universities have a vast number of appropriate uses for digital certificate technology. Using digital signatures allows a university to conduct the grant writing and management process entirely online. Digital certificates also ensure that highly confidential research data can be sent from one institution to another securely. They can facilitate human resource administration, student services, and curriculum management. Most colleges and universities, however, are only beginning to explore the uses of digital certificates.

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), administrators are conducting pilot programs as they lay the groundwork for the installation of digital certificates in all twelve UAB academic and health sciences schools this summer. According to Clair Goldsmith, vice president for information technology at UAB, the rollout will occur in several key areas, beginning with intellectual property management. Says Goldsmith, "Using digital certificates, we'll be able to manage the patent application process, delivering applications that are legally binding, encrypted documents."
Next in line is the benefits department, which will use digital certificates for several purposes, including allowing employees to sign benefit documents via the Internet. "This will allow us to give better customer service to our new hires," says Goldsmith. "Now employees won't have to travel to campus to fill out forms before they begin work here." He adds, "Everyone will have access to the forms around the clock, instead of just during business hours."

UAB, along with three other universities, is working with the National Institutes of Health to develop a system for delivering digitally signed documents between the university and the federal government. UAB is also developing a model for grant writing across the campus, which will allow the university to submit and manage all of the institution's grant forms digitally. Eventually, even student services will make use of the certificates, when financial aid, registration, and other functions participate. Students will have secure access to campus services from their dorm rooms.

UAB is using the services of TrustID from Digital Signature Trust Co., which claims to be the world's premier provider of digital identification solutions for secure online transactions. But how d'es digital certification differ from simply delivering a document from one address to another? Unlike a non-certified document, documents that have digital certification come with an assurance that the sender is who he or she claims to be. Doing this requires pairing a set of keys, a private key and a public key, which come together to verify a person's identity. One key is used to encrypt information and the other to decrypt it. The digital signature company holds the public key and fits it to the private key when the user puts it into the system. The dance that they do is called "symmetric key infrastructure."

Although digital certificate providers rely on varying levels of authentication or steps to getting a key, the process is similar regardless of the company. Users get a key after a series of verification processes are completed. For instance, a professor might respond to a questionnaire. Then she would appear at a designated time with two forms of picture identification in hand. The physical appearance combined with the personal information she has provided would authenticate her identity, at which point she would receive a key. Every time she wanted to use her key after that point, she would have to verify her identity using some sort of password or other device.

UAB will have its digital certificate program up and running by mid-2002 and hopes to complete the process within a year.

For more information, contact Clair Goldsmith at c.goldsmith@uab.edu.

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