Cryptography Rides to the Notaries Rescue

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-05-01 Print this article Print

Opinion: It's amazing that it took this long, and it's still in early stages, but public key cryptography is emerging as the notarization stamp of the future.

To those who grew up in the electronic age, notarization of documents has the odor of antiquity and obsolescence. It is an ancient practice, but ironically it serves purposes directly analogous to many of high priority for modern electronic documents. And now modern security techniques are bringing notarization to the electronic realm, to the benefit of both. Think of notaries as an old-world authentication and accreditation system.
In the United States, they are accredited by the state, and similar positions are supported by governments the world over.
They witness the signature of documents, authenticate the signatories, and accredit the signatures through a physical mark attached to the paper: an ink stamp, a crimp, even a physical seal (hows that for old world?).

There are lots of problems with this system, but lets focus on two of them: 1) paper notarization only works for paper documents, and the world is going digital, and 2) the paper notarizations are subject to fraud of various kinds.

Of course, traditional notarization has never really been about any actual security created by the process. Its true meaning is in the formality of the process, telling the signers that they are committing an official act of some sort and underscoring their risk of legal penalty for perjury or fraud. The centrality of the symbolic aspect is basically still true of electronic notarization, but the authentication aspect of the process becomes more genuine.

The world of paper documents will continue to have these problems and be totally symbolic, but strong notarization tools increase the incentive for official document recording to go electronic. Therefore the NNA (National Notary Association) has been pushing for states to embrace e-notarization, or electronic notarization of electronic documents.

It has been adopted to varying degrees by seven states (California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah), but Pennsylvania has emerged as the poster child for widespread adoption. According to the NNA, it is the only state where all the important actors have signed on. Over the next year the Pennsylvania Department of State is conducting Phase I of its Electronic Notarization Initiative and expects all counties to begin accepting e-notarized documents.

E-notarization is a specialized form of public key signing. To become an e-notary (here in PDF form), one must, first of all, be a commissioned notary of the conventional sort. The applicant files an application, which, if accepted, allows the applicant to receive an "Electronic Notary Seal" and their contact information is forwarded to the NNA. The applicant pays a $24.95 fee to the NNA.

At this point, the applicant has to appear in person before a participating county Recorder of Deeds (there are four of them right now, explained here in PDF form) and present their approval letter and satisfactory ID. The Recorder will then enter the notarys ID information into the shared Electronic Notary Seal database. Only at this point does the NNA contact the notary and tell them how to download their Electronic Notary Seal, which is an x.509 v3 certificate.

Cumbersome, isnt it? Dont expect an Amazon one-click version of this process any time soon. And dont assume that electronic notarization can be done remotely through a Web site. E-notarization still requires the notary to physically witness the signatories sign the document, albeit to apply their signatures electronically. As the Pennsylvania site says, "...the personal appearance rule must be strictly followed. In addition, the signer of the electronic document must be positively identified and screened for awareness and willingness."

When I say the signatories "sign the document," I refer to signatures in the more conventional sense, not to digital signatures. Probably the most common way this would be done is with a stylus on a tablet PC or an attached device similar to the ones used in stores for electronically signing credit card receipts.

Next Page: E-notarization mechanics.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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