Digital Signature Could Even Replace Physical Signatures

Updated: Jan 28 2003, 05:30am hrs
With a vision towards being a global power in information technology, India was quick to put an IT Act in place in the year 2000. India was also one of the few nations to have its own controller of certifying authorities (CCA) for digital signatures. K N Gupta took over the responsibility as Indias first controller in November 2000. In last two years, he was involved in setting up the root CAs technology infrastructure, creating regulatory framework and spreading awareness about digital signatures in various government departments. CCA has already given away four certifying authority (CA) licenses. Ashu Kumar of eFE caught up with him to find out the reasons behind the slow adoption of digital signatures and the future of the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology. Excerpts:

It is more than two years since CCA was appointed in India. How do you rate the progress of digital signatures in India so far
I am quite satisfied with the number of certifying authorities in India so far and hope to see more companies and government organisations coming forward to become CAs this year.

However, the number of digital signature certificatesthat have already been distributed in Indiaare not as many as they were expected to be at this point of time.

What has been the major reason for the slow growth in number of digital signatures
The first hurdle was the lack of awareness among people about digital signatures and its advantages. However, the awareness is increasing rapidly among business users and government officials as we (CCA) along with all the existing CAs are working hard to educate people about the applications and benefits of digital signatures.

The cost of digital signature in India is also an entry barrier as one certificate cost around Rs 1,000 per year to maintain. We have requested the CAs to work towartds bring down the cost to Rs 300-400 to make it more affordable.

The availability of appropriate software applications is also an issue. There is need to have software applications that are PKI enabled and offer users an option to use digital signatures. Fortunately, all CAs in India are software companies and all of them are developing applications with embedded PKI technology.

What are the sectors that will be the early adopters of digital signature in India and what kind of applications can really click for commercial success of this technology
The usage of digital signatures is picking up fast in the banking sector. The technology is already being used by some senior officials of a few nationalised and private banks. It will slowly spread to other bank employees to authenticate and secure their internal communication and transactions. Once the banks are confident of using the technology, customers will also be given digital signatures.

In the case of banks and other public services industries, it may take a long time for digital signatures to reach masses. What are the other areas where digital signatures can reach the common man faster
Digital signatures can do wonders in e-governanace applications. For example, the income tax department can use digital signature for filing of returns online. Even if one per cent of tax payers are able to file returns online, it will save time and efforts of 3.5 million tax payers.

Similarly, government is planning to introduce citizen identity cards on a national level. These cards, if enabled by digital signature technology, can be used for multiple tasks and will allow the citizen to access information from government databanks in a secure environment.

With multiple applications, the cost of the card can also be shared by different government departments as they would not be required to issue a separate card for applications related to their areas.

Digital signatures can also be used in post offices for transfer of funds for money orders across the country.

Digital signatures can be effectively used in judicial systems to publish judgments on the Internet so that they can reach the people concerned on time and in the right form.

If you see so many applications in government sector, are you making any efforts to educate the government departments concerned
We are trying our best to spread the awareness about the technology in government circles. We recently made a presentation to the chief justices and senior judges of various courts. In Karnataka, a pilot project has alraedy been initiated to introduce digital signature in the judicial system. We are in touch with other government departments as well and hope to receive a positive result.

Is the Indian digital signature valid in other countries and vice versa
We have recently formed an India PKI Forum to take it forward with other countries to create interoperability of digital signatures across boundaries. We are in active discussion with PKI Forums of Asia, US and Europe in this regard. Moreover, the certifying authorities are also working towards creating interoperability with their foreign counterparts.

What is the future of digital signatures in India
Digital signature will play an important role in all the processes that require security and authenticity of transaction annd users. Digital signatures are not going to be limited to online transaction, they will also be used as an authentication tool and may replace physical signatures on critical documents.

Since the technology is progressing fast, the possibility of tampering and duplicating a physical signature is also increasing. State of the art printers and scanners can be misused to forge signature or even thumb impressions and finger prints easily. Digital signatures can be an effective and practical answer to these problems.