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UTAH'S DIGITAL SIGNATURE ACT COMPLEMENTS PLANNED FACILITIES

The $70 million courts complex to be built in Salt Lake City by 1998 will be a showcase for technology that will take Utah's justice system into the next millenium.

Plans call for computer-assisted court reporting and testifying by interactive video. So-called "quick court" kiosks will open, first around Salt Lake County, then the state, providing forms and information about tax liens, small-claim suits, uncontested divorces, protection orders and landlord-tenant disputes.But the most significant advance may come from the newly passed Utah Digital Signature Act.

The 1995 bill is the nation's first state legislation to certify and establish protocol for the use of digitized signatures in the electronic filing of court documents.

The need for signature verification has blocked courts from accepting legal documents filed by computer and modem. The breakthrough is an encryption technology allowing the creation of unique and forgery-proof signatures in digital form.

Once online, the technology could wipe away mounds of bulky files and paper documents while providing state residents better access to the court system via computer hookups.

Legislators in Washington, Oregon, California and Florida reportedly are considering similar digital signature legislation.

Users of the digital signature device need two computer codes used in cryptography. One is kept private, usually on a personal floppy disk. The second, a public key, is registered in an accessible data-base.

Once a legal filing is typed and edited, software creates a short computer summary of the document. The author's private key then is used to encode the digest into a string of letters and numbers - the digital signature.

Since each digest is different, signatures cannot be copied illicitly for use on other filings.

After the document reaches court computers, clerks would locate the sender's public key in the public repository and use it to decode and verify the signature.