Why should you care if a resource is authentic?
Well, you’d care if you were a presidential candidate and an altered photograph contributed in a way to your ultimate loss.
You might also care if you were a NASA scientist and a forgery introduced doubt about one of your agency’s most stellar historic achievements.
Most forgeries don’t have such dramatic consequences, but the increasing use of electronic documents poses special challenges in verifying authenticity.
As the U.S. Government Printing Office has noted, digital technology makes documents easy to alter or copy, leading to multiple non-identical versions that can be used in unauthorized or illegitimate ways.
The ease of alteration has introduced doubt in many user’s minds about the authenticity of all the digital documents they encounter. While there are times when we gleefully acknowledge the inauthenticity of the content of a document, for the most part we want to be assured that the document in our inbox is what it purports to be and is free from tampering or corruption (PDF).
One of the biggest challenges we face in the digital stewardship community is to help develop systems that reaffirm trust and that ensure users that the documents under our care are authentic.
[At this point let me take a moment to acknowledge a difference between “bit-level” authenticity (often known as “fixity”) and “content-level” authenticity (being explored more fully in the field of “digital forensics”). In this post we’re largely concerned with aspects of “bit-level” authenticity.]
We’ve touched on authenticity issues in several previous posts on the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act. The NDIIP-supported Model Technological and Social Architecture for the Preservation of State Government Digital Information Project has been deeply engaged with the UELMA work, but they’ve also explored a number of other aspects on the authentication of digital state government legislative materials.
Their most recent activity on this front is the publication of a white paper, Authentication of Primary Legal Materials and Pricing Options, (PDF) that discusses five methods of authenticating primary legal materials in electronic format and their associated costs. The white paper was prepared by the California Office of Legislative Counsel, working in partnership with the MTSA project.
The paper touches on the legal background behind authenticity issues, including an extensive review of uniform and federal acts related to electronic government information, but the meat of it is the section on “Authentication Methods and Cost Options,” which provides a clear explication of the variety of potential authentication methods (secure web sites, document digests, digital signatures) and then clearly lays out the pluses, minuses, (and most importantly) estimated costs of each approach.
Digital legislative materials are not going to go away. As Salmon P. Chase College of Law professor Michael Whiteman has noted in his article The Death of Twentieth-Century Authority, (PDF) “the appropriate response is not to dispense with these new sources, but to come up with ways to ensure their accessibility by future researchers.”
The Authentication of Primary Legal Materials and Pricing Options white paper is (to continue the Keanu Reeves riff) a “most excellent” contribution to these efforts.