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But is the Government Document Authentic?

September 17, 2009

When law school journal cite checkers request an electronic document, they often ask, “Is it in PDF (Adobe portable document format)?”   The goal of course is to find an original and authoritative document, and not an altered and less reliable document.    When it comes to federal government documents such as statutes and regulations, journal students likewise ask, “Is it in PDF?”  This is a fair question since electronic government documents may be modified after release by the government.

Few journal students or legal practitioners, however, realize that the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) has created a mechanism to ensure that a document is official and authentic (see figure 1).   Beginning as early as 2005, a GPO paper aptly entitled Authentication, stated “GPO’s authentication initiatives will allow users to determine that the files are unchanged since GPO authenticated them, help establish a clear chain of custody for electronic documents, and provide security for and safeguard Federal Government publications.” 
To certify that that a document’s contents are authentic and official, many government documents on Federal Digital System (FDsys) (Government Printing Office web site) now use digital signature technology, which contain digital certification and a digital signature (figures 2 & 3).   By clicking on the Seal of Authenticity, detailed digital certificate and digital signature information may be obtained, as seen in the below figures.   Both the certification and signature ensure that a document’s integrity has been maintained since GPO authenticated and distributed it. In addition, both the digital certification and digital signature may be obtained by clicking on a picture of an eagle, next to the words “Authenticated U.S. Government Information.”   When a PDF document is signed and certified by GPO, it will have a blue ribbon icon next to the Seal of Authenticity, indicating that it is a valid document.
At this time, public and private laws beginning from the 103rd (1993-1994) to the 111th (2009-2010) Congress have been authenticated.   Other government documents such as the Budget of the United States have also been digitally signed and digitally certified since the 2009 Budget.  
For more information on authentication of federal government documents, please visit GPO Access’ “Authentication: Frequently Asked Questions.”


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