West at the forefront of an electronic government

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Al Sherwood envisions a Utah in which people renew their drivers licenses in the middle of the night, check their property records on Labor Day and apply for professional licenses on Sunday morning.

The chief information officer for the state, Sherwood says his vision doesn't mean hiring scores of new workers. Rather, it could become reality within six months through the use of digital signatures - which make contracts signed by computer equal to those sealed in pen and ink.

President Clinton cemented the future of digital signatures in July, when he legislation that says as of March 1, 2001, companies can begin the electronic retention of legal records such as mortgages and financial securities.

Digital signatures already were legal in more than 40 states before Clinton signed the legislation, but many of those states made the legal moves before they made the technological moves that allowed the signatures to do anything.

The boom since then has been in the West, some say.

''With the federal digital law, all the states are really seeing the significance (of this) and are realizing they have to meet certain standards,'' said Michael Brown, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City-based Digital Signature Trust Co. ''But from what I've seen and what we've done recently, the West is really at the forefront.''

Utah became the first state in the nation to legally validate digital signatures with its Digital Signatures Act of 1995 and added a broader version this year. It signed a contract with DST this week to offer digital certificates - the electronic equivalent of a tamperproof ID card with which you can obtain a digital signature - to residents and businesses. DST also has a contract with the federal government for similar service.

Courts in Salt Lake City have accepted digitally signed documents since March, and the Salt Lake City district attorney's office has been filing warrants and cases online for more than a year.

Washington and California are at a similar place in their digital signature technology and San Jose, Calif., is already issuing building permits online, Brown said.

Exactly where Utah residents can get a digital certificate, how much one will cost and where you can use it now are still being finalized, Sherwood said, although it's expected to cost about $15 and some agencies are already working on how to accept them.

''More government services will be brought online that will use these,'' Sherwood said. ''We have to put those services online so people will have work that they need to do with government available for them to do.''

Utah surveyed its various agencies before signing the contract with DST - an affiliate of Zions Bancorp. - asking them how useful the service could be.

Agencies say it could be used for tasks as varied as getting a concealed weapon permit, a private investigator permit, firearms training licenses or armed and unarmed guard permits; renewing library rentals; checking on hospital records; settling parking tickets, renewing livestock brands and allowing private clubs to order liquor online.

Karen West, the director of government services for DST, said her company has met with about 10 Utah agencies so far and has received calls from an additional 10 about the program.

''We just need to get the infrastructure going. Then we're looking at a rapid rollout,'' Sherwood said. ''We expect that within six months we'll have a number of these up and rolling. It's all about building infrastructure. It's not sexy, but it's necessary.''

Sherwood said the system will not only save time and money for people, but for their government as well because governmental agencies have to buy a lot of supplies and the purchases are cheaper through the online system.

''I think there's a lot of places out there where certificates are going to be really valuable,'' Brown said.

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On the Net:

Digital Signature Trust Co.: http://www.digsigtrust.com/

State of Utah: http://www.state.ut.us

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