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In our work to streamline government services, the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) found that one choke point when it comes to processing applications and requests was the number of documentary requirements and signatures needed. Numerous papers have to be passed around and signed by a handful of key persons, which means that it could take days before the transaction could be completed. With the interconnectivity that modern technology provides, this could be done faster and more efficiently through the use of electronic documents and digital signatures.

The ARTA has long been pushing for the use of digital signatures in government practice, especially now when there was an urgent need for automated solutions as to not hamper the delivery of public service amid the pandemic. In fact, the authority has been aiming to be the first paperless agency in the country by shifting from manual to digital documentations.

While I know that there are some agencies that are now using digital signatures, there are still a lot that are hesitant to do so for two common reasons: security and auditing from the Commission on Audit (CoA).

It must be stressed that there is a difference between electronic signatures and digital signatures. Electronic signatures are the common copy-paste system that people use to affix their e-signatures to a document. When we say digital signature, we are referring to a more sophisticated and secure service being offered under the Department of Information and Communications Technology's (DICT) Philippine National Public Key Infrastructure (PNPKI). The PKI can authenticate the data source of digital signatures and ensure that its data is not tampered with during transit, allowing users of public networks like the internet to exchange private data in a safe and secure manner. Digital signatures can only be applied to a particular gadget of the owner and are equipped with paired keys, passwords and various security features, including a time-stamping service. The smallest change, 1-bit, from the validated signature will be detected upon verification. Apart from its tamper-proof features, digital signatures are also free of charge and are very easy to use. Those who use passwords and other security features in their cellphones, computers and social media accounts will not find it hard to use digital signature technology.

On Sept. 6, 2021, the CoA released Circular 2021-006, which contained guidelines on the use of digital signatures for accountability purposes to resolve doubts over the reliability of information to be used as audit evidence. It also cited several legal bases for the use of digital signatures, including the ARTA's efforts to streamline and digitalize government services and two previous CoA issuances, Circular 2004-006 and Circular 2009-073. The former, issued on Sept. 9, 2004, implied the admissibility of digitally signed documents in audit, while the latter, released on July 23, 2009, required state auditors to ensure that their audited agencies providing electronic services to their clients will be implementing the use of digital signatures in their respective e-government services.

Also cited were Republic Act 8729 or the "Electronic Commerce Act of 2002" that provides for the legal recognition of electronic signatures and imposes strict requirements before an electronic signature qualifies as a handwritten signature; RA 10173 or the "Data Privacy Act of 2012"; and RA 10175 or the "Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012" that requires government agencies to establish and implement controls and secure means of providing electronic services to the public. The CoA also mentioned in its circular that the Supreme Court, the Government Procurement Policy Board and the Bureau of Internal Revenue all recognize the legitimacy of digital signatures and approved their use in their operations.

The CoA's latest issuance categorically assures everyone that digital signatures are recognized and even encouraged in government practice.

Now, it would seem that there are no longer any reasons for government agencies, local government units and other government instrumentalities to not use digital signatures in their daily operations. Moving forward, we will include the subscription of agencies, especially their heads, to the DICT-PNPKI in our process and systems audit and review.

Since government offices are now starting to use digital signatures in their daily operations, it would be reasonable to expect that private entities would soon accelerate their use of digital signatures as well. This makes a lot of sense if we really want transacting with the government to be one hundred percent online. By using digital signatures, private entities would be able to submit electronic copies of their applications without the necessity of notarization. Electronic documents that are digitally signed could be easily authenticated and verified by the government offices concerned since the digital footprint and trail would lead to a particular unit or gadget used by the signatory as well as the time of their signing. Thus, if it turns out that the gadget used is the laptop or cellphone personally and exclusively being used by the applicant, then the probability of him being the actual signatory in the document is almost certain. As an added security feature, users may also choose to set a password for their digital signatures before they are actually allowed to affix it, which makes the process even more tamper-proof.

I can only hope and see that the demands for the use of digital signatures will soon grow. That is why I believe that the DICT should also start accrediting and recognizing different digital signature companies or products that may be safe to use by the government and the public.

With this simple change in how we go about with the delivery of government services, Filipinos will be unburdened of passing their applications and requests to various offices just to secure the needed signatures and of the long waiting time before their transaction is completed. We are hopeful and optimistic that with more government agencies shifting to the use of digital signatures, we will be taking strides toward our vision of a highly efficient, technology-enabled and people-centered Philippine government.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Jeremiah Belgica

Quelle/Source: The Manila Times, 24.10.2021

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