ANNAPOLIS – Del. Carol Petzold wants to spark electronic commerce in Maryland with legislation legalizing digital signatures. The problem is, few people understand what she’s talking about.
“The real question is, `Does anyone other than Carol understand the bill?,'” said Petzold, D-Montgomery. “It’s more like a credit card than a pen-and-ink signature.”
Digital signatures allow consumers to make secure purchases over the Internet and fax contracts and other legal documents that are normally only valid with a pen-and-paper signature.
The system is based on a technology called dual key encryption. It works like this: Someone applies for a private key — an electronic code used to create a message. The certification authority, which issues and keeps records of private keys, holds the public key necessary to decode the message.
When a message is sent — say, by someone seeking to buy an airline ticket — the travel agent would forward it to the certification authority. The authority would use the public key to open the message and either verify or dispute the identity of the sender.
It’s a little like a safe deposit box, which requires both the boxholder’s key and the financial institution’s key to open.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, has stressed the importance of using technology to attract businesses to Maryland and sponsored a technology briefing for delegates last month. Despite Taylor’s efforts, Petzold hasn’t been able to generate much interest in her bill.
This legislation would designate Secretary of State John T. Willis as the certification authority. Willis, who has not yet taken a position on the bill, is waiting to see an example of a functioning system, a spokeswoman said.
The proposal is based on the Utah Digital Signature Act, the nation’s first comprehensive digital signature legislation. While Utah’s law has been in effect since 1995, full implementation is not expected before September 1997.
The reason for the delay is that the Utah Department of Commerce had to wait for vendors to submit proposals to provide the software and develop a repository for certificates, said Kenneth Allen, digital signature coordinator there.
Allen said his office has to do a lot of educating about digital signatures. “We’re even finding that some legislatures that pass the bill don’t even understand it,” Allen said.
Petzold’s bill is currently before the House Economic Matters Committee, whose chairman, Del. Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, admitted that he doesn’t know a lot about digital signature technology.
“This is a new concept that is sweeping the country,” Busch said. “I’m not exactly sure what direction will be taken with this bill. I’d be surprised if we acted on it this session.”
The bill is likely to be assigned to the Subcommittee on Science and Technology after a hearing before the full committee, Busch said. Del. Kumar Barve, who chairs the subcommittee, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
“I signed off on it because it’s a technology bill,” Barve said, adding that he had not yet read the bill. “I trust her [Petzold].”
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on the bill either. “I’m vaguely familiar with it,” said Sally Hayes, director of public relations. “We have a very focused business agenda. This is not a bill we are following.” The bill’s hearing date is still three weeks away, which may be why it has not generated much discussion. -30-