Electronic trail can reveal alterations

Electronic trail can reveal alterations

Peter Wilson

Vancouver Sun

Thursday, April 01, 2004

The idea of filing legal documents online makes some people nervous. After all, it would seem remarkably easy to alter an electronic document.

If you want to be paranoid about it, a few keystrokes and somebody else could own your house. A few more and who knows what could happen.

Not so, says Mark James, the corporate account manager with Adobe Canada, who worked with the Land Titles Branch on the documents for e-filing, which are in Adobe's PDF format.

For one thing, once the lawyer or notary's electronic signature is applied to the document, it's figuratively frozen in time.

"Once the user signs, it puts a hidden stamp on that document that validates how that document looked at that time. We take a snapshot of that file."

And, if the document is ever altered, the Adobe Acrobat program, which creates the PDF files, can tell if it's been changed.

Not only that, but the reader of the document can do a rollback.

"So you can do a comparison as to how that document looked at the time it was signed and how it looks after the alteration."

Another problem with electronic documents is that time changes technology.

A document created five years ago -- because of changes in fonts and printing methods -- could look completely different now both on-screen and when printed. Worse yet, if the document contained tables, key data could become misaligned.

With PDF, says James, the format gets locked in.

"So 20 years from now the document will look exactly the same, including the fonts and the graphics."

If the document is ever sent out for review, said James, you not only know it won't be altered but comments can be made on it without them becoming part of the document.

As well, said James, with paper documents that are examined they have to be removed from the archives holding them. This is not true of electronic documents where a copy can be made and send out and the original remains in the files.

Another company heavily involved in making e-filing work smoothly and securely in British Columbia is Vancouver's MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, which operates the BC OnLine service -- over which e-filing is done -- in a public/private partnership with the provincial government.

Roland Knight, the COO of MDA's information products group said that the company has worked closely with the provincial law society to make sure they were happy.

"Number one you have to make sure that the document is coming from the person you think it's coming from, so there's an authentication process," Knight said.

"And you have to make sure the documents are securely transmitted, that there are no errors in transmission that people don't have the ability to alter the document.

MDA, said Knight, built the BC OnLine system and will be operating it.

"Basically, we're responsible for accepting the orders and the government has the responsibility for basically maintaining the data base."

Knight said that MDA, in addition to the e-filing part of the process is working on the e-conveyancing end of things so that eventually all the documents can be prepared electronically, and information passed between banks and lawyers and notaries even before e-filing takes place.

"We've done a joint venture with a company called Remote Law and they have software that allows you to basically do e-conveyancing.

"Prior to this one-stop shopping wasn't there. Now a seamless end-to-end process is possible."

© The Vancouver Sun 2004