Certified Electronic Signature

Mary Ellen Power,

Electronic Signatures opened the door to greater efficiency in our remote business processes. Instead of obligating a signer to travel into a bank branch, car dealership, or an office setting, the signer can simply e-sign at their convenience from any place, at any time, and using any device. At best, the paper workflow alternatives involving handwritten signatures can be mailed or faxed in an attempt to expedite the analog process, but from an efficiency standpoint, there is no comparison to an electronic signature on an electronic document. The most important question then becomes whether or not the electronic signature is secure. How can you be certain a digital contract has not been tampered with since it was signed or between signers if there are multiple individuals involved? The answer is to use a digital signature.

What is an Electronic Signature vs a Digital Signature?

These terms may sound synonymous, but their differences are significant. An electronic signature is simply a handwritten signature in electronic form. It serves the same purpose – to represent the signer’s consent to be bound by the terms of the contract being signed. However, the signature does not need to resemble the user’s handwritten signature, and the signatory can simply click to sign a document or configure a reusable signature in their electronic signature solution.

A digital signature is not a signature at all. It refers to encryption/decryption (cryptography) technology used to tamper-seal digital documents after they are signed. Digital signatures are built using a public key infrastructure (PKI) (as opposed to using a private key) and are used to ensure that modifications are not made to the contract without the consent of the interested parties. For example, the digital signature applies a trusted time stamp at the time of the last alteration. Any alterations to the timestamped document and any visible signature changes will be obvious.

Three Types of Electronic Signature for Your Signing Process

Though specifics may vary from country to country, there are three types of electronic signature recognized around the world: Basic Electronic Signatures, Advanced Electronic Signatures (AES), and Qualified Electronic Signatures. Refer to your local legislation, such as the eIDAS regulation, for specific signature properties and requirements related to each signature type.

Generally, however, the primary difference between electronic signature types are the level of security and identity assurance involved, and digital signatures are a key differentiator between Basic Electronic Signatures and enhanced e-signature solutions.

Think of it this way, a basic signature is appropriate to use when the risk or consequences of fraud are low, such as signing a petition. An AES or QES is used for contracts that warrant enhanced security and validation, such as a mortgage loan.

Digital signatures are foundational to these enhanced e-signatures, because they provide a key layer of security and user authentication. This is incredibly important for businesses, as they may need the benefits of digital signatures even if they aren't required to use enhanced e-signatures for legal reasons. Digital signatures are an encrypted code that is attached to an electronic signature to verify its authenticity from origination through storage.

Qualified Electronic Signatures, Trust Service Providers, and Certification Authorities

The highest level of electronic signature used to sign documents, the QES, also involves the highest level of security. A QES requires, in addition to using a digital signature, a digital certificate from a third-party certified authority, such as a Qualified Trust Service Provider (TSPs). The certificate authority or TSP will certify the authenticity of the signatures on electronic transactions, thereby strengthening the legal admissibility of the signed document by issuing a signing certificate.

Three Benefits of Digital Signatures for PDF Files

Using an electronic signature solution equipped with digital signature technology timestamping offers several important benefits:

  • Mobile Device Support: User authentication is extremely difficult to manage when dealing with smartphones and tablets, making innovative solutions vital to ensuring that a person who signs a document is who he or she claims to be. Digital signatures are sent out attached to documents to verify their source and destination. That digital signature then sticks with the form throughout the entire process. If a smartphone is somehow compromised or a network intrusion causes the document to be captured by an unauthorized user, the digital signature will record the unexpected access and call the electronic signature into question. Alternately, if every facet of what the digital signature records goes as it should, it provides another layer of verification that supports the entire transaction.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Encryption is a common regulatory requirement as it ensures that data is safe even if it is stolen. Using digital signatures to support e-signatures ensures that key signing and user data is protected throughout every phase of record creation and management, making it much easier to comply with regulatory guidelines.
  • Taking E-Signatures to Court: A basic e-signature holds minimal weight in court as there is little evidence to back that a person who made a signature was the individual he or she claimed to be. Digital signatures capture more metadata about signature transactions and provide protection for all parties in court by providing a critical layer of user authentication that can stand up in front of a judge and jury. Digital signatures provide the security and user verification businesses need to safely transition to electronic signatures.

Check out our Electronic Signature FAQs to get more info on why certifying your PDF documents and other contracts with digital signatures can make such a big difference for businesses.


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Readiness Checklist: How to Get Started with E‑Signatures

Learn the various implementation options as well as the top technical requirements to deploying electronic signatures in your organization.

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Mary Ellen has over 30 years of experience leading marketing teams and strategy for technology companies. In her role as VP of Marketing at OneSpan, her team is charged with content development, marketing technology operations and lead generation through to the business development of early-stage opportunities. She has co-presented on 200+ webinars and speaking engagements with banking, insurance, and government organizations, and co-led the successful rebranding of the company.