Feds make a sign for business

Feds make a sign for business

By Paul Montgomery

Pushing down the road to full governmental electronic delivery, the Australian government is about to set down the specifications for digital signatures which will be given to every business in Australia. The government said in a statement that it intends to "develop a digital signature process for use by Australian businesses in dealing with public sector agencies".

The new digital signature will be linked to the Australian Business Number. One of each will be issued to every Australian company, of which there are 2.1 million. Its official name will be ABN-Digital Signature Certificate, or ABN-DSC.

The Australian Tax Office (ATO) has been the most active within the public sector in trying to drag small businesses into the age of electronic service delivery - all in an effort to save time and money as part of the tax reform program of the Federal Coalition Government.

Strong take-up of the ABN and the ABN-DSC together would mean not only that the ATO would save money on employees and other resources, but experts have theorised that it may also benefit from being able to monitor business activities far more effectively, as it would enable cross-matching of transactions and corporate relationships.

The new digital signature will be linked to the Australian Business Number issued to every company

While details of what the certificate will look like have yet to be confirmed, documents released by the government indicate that it will be "interchangeable" with the certificate already developed by the ATO, which conforms to the X.509 standard. The ATO is expected to be able to accept ABN-DSCs by the end of the year 2000, according to the documentation.

The certificates will only be able to be issued by certificate authorities which have been certified under Project Gatekeeper, the Australian Government's overarching system for a public key infrastructure.

To avoid the prospect of needing a "key ring" of multiple redundant certificates to deal with various public sector organisations, once a Government agency has issued an ABN-DSC to an Australian business, other agencies will be bound to accept the certificate for other transactions in all but "exceptional circumstances".

"The Government will shortly be releasing specific details of the digital signature, and will be encouraging State Governments to take it up," said Peter McGauran, Acting Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. "All Commonwealth agencies will be expected to use the ABN when identifying businesses and, similarly, the ABN-based digital signature for authenticating online transactions with business."


The latest announcement follows on from activities at the first meeting of the National Electronic Authentication Council (see Image & Data Manager November/December 1999, page 51).

After the specifications have been set, the next step for government agencies will be choosing a vendor to provide the software, in a field which is already seeing juicy multi-million dollar contracts being awarded to the likes of Baltimore Technologies and Secure Network Solutions.

The agencies will require the vendors to display proof of interoperability in a series of tests, possibly involving adherence to international standards, according to the documents released by the Government.

The first applications for the ABN-DSCs are expected to be a Business Exchange, where businesses can update their details and upload statutory reports online, and a Government Supplier Register of companies which public sector agencies use for procurement.