Small firm spearheads digital signatures

A financial services firm may be one of the first UK firms to bring in the use of digital signatures

Financial services firm Andersen-Charnley plans to introduce digital signature technology to authorise share transactions by the end of the year – well ahead of banks and major financial institutions.

Andersen-Charnley, a startup company with 22 staff, aims to persuade large financial institutions to accept digital certificates, even though opinion is still divided on the underlying standards and technology.

The company, which manages share portfolios for highly paid executives, will be one of the first financial services companies in the UK to use digital certificates, rather than paper instructions, to authorise share deals and other financial transactions for its clients.

“Someone is going to have to spearhead the use of digital signatures,” said Avril Miller, director of operations. “Digital signatures are going to happen.”

Digital signatures are critical to Andersen-Charnley’s business plan. It aims to give time-pressed executives, who currently have to fax or post written confirmation, the ability to quickly authorise share deals over the Internet.

But the company has been held back by the lack of progress made by government-backed efforts to introduce digital signatures in the UK.

Although the technology has already been recognised by the European Union and Germany, the UK is still working out the practicalities of the system.

“This year we were supposed to have implemented a paperless office. It is fundamental to us. We have not been able to because of lack of agreement by the government on digital signatures,” said managing director Chris Loynes.

Andersen-Charnley hopes to force the pace by introducing its own public key infrastructure (PKI) system, which will be based on open standards. The company has hired US supplier Xcert to develop the system.

Observers suggest that Andersen-Charnley may be taking a risk by adopting PKI technology before accepted standards are agreed.

“That’s the problem with organisations going in early. They risk being Beta-maxed,” said Robert Morgan, chief executive of consultancy Morgan Chambers.

Fly on the wall: Computer Weekly to sit in on PKI project

Andersen-Charnley has agreed to open its doors to Computer Weekly in a unique project for E-Business Month.

We will be following the progress of Andersen-Charnley’s digital signature project from initial definition through to completion, sitting in on meetings and listening in to discussions with suppliers. The project will provide a unique insight into a major IT security development.

Among the key issues that Andersen-Charnley will need to consider are:

  • Whether to run the PKI system in-house or whether to outsource.
  • Will clients feel more or less secure if the system is managed by a third party?
  • Will PKI slow down the website? A 30-second delay would deter clients.
  • Should PKI be rolled out in stages or all in one go?
  • How quickly should PKI be rolled out. How much testing will the system need?

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