Electronic Signatures Vs. Digital Signatures – Defining the Difference [Infographic]

John Gunn, October 11, 2017

As society becomes ever more reliant on digital processes, traditional mechanisms of conducting business have become more automated, with a number of industry sectors eager to tap into an in increasingly tech-savvy consumer base. While the last ten years have seen a plethora of electronic communication devices enter the marketplace, there has also been a demonstrated need for companies to replace paper-based processes with more efficient models, and e-signatures built on digital signature technology are leading the way.

While adoption of e-signatures has become widespread in the private and public sector, market awareness has been, in some ways, limited by a lack of understanding as to how digital signature technology fits into the picture. While electronic signatures have been recognized as a legal concept in federal law since the year 2000, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that to the average person, a digital signature is the same thing. However, this is certainly not the case and the terms are not definitely not interchangeable.

Electronic Signature

An electronic signature is, like its paper equivalent, a legal concept. According to the U.S Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, an e-signature is an "electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to, or associated with, a contract or other record and adopted by a person with the intent to sign a record."

Digital Signatures

Digital signatures, on the other hand, refers to the encryption / decryption technology on which an electronic signature solution is built. A digital signature alone is not a type of electronic signature. Rather, digital signature encryption secures the data associated with a signed document and helps verify the authenticity of a signed record. Used alone, it cannot capture a person's intent to sign a document or be legally bound to an agreement or contract.

A solution that simply digitally signs documents often lacks feature sets commonly found in best-in-class e-signature solutions, including an out-of-the-box user interface (UI), as well as transaction management and advanced workflow customization capabilities used in more complex transactions that touch the customer.

The bottom line is that when looking for a solution to manage your signing processes, it’s important to ensure that it is built on digital signature technology to guarantee the integrity of the document and underlying signatures. Without digital signatures, your document-based transactions may not be legally binding, putting you and your organization at risk in the event of a compliance or legal case. 

Capturing and Securing Evidence with Digital Signatures

To ensure that your digital contracts are legally enforceable, look for an electronic signature solution that captures a comprehensive audit trail and uses a digital signature to protect and tamper-proof it.

The Beginner's Guide to Electronic Signatures

The Beginner's Guide to Electronic Signatures

This essential briefing introduces important legal concepts and key considerations when creating digital business processes with e-signatures.

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Collecting strong electronic evidence can be accomplished by capturing the full electronic signing process experienced by the signer. This includes the exact appearance and order of all the web screens, documents, and legal disclosures that were presented, along with how long a person spent on each page and all the actions they took during the review and signing process, like clicking buttons to accept, sign, initial, and confirm.

The more evidence an organization captures about what process was used, the greater the chance that the signed document will be enforced in a court of law. And that's something most organizations contemplating e-signatures can stand behind. While many e-signature solutions on the market may meet the baseline requirements outlined by the ESIGN Act, organizations looking to minimize the risk of unenforceable records should aim to set the bar higher by choosing an e-signature solution built on digital signature technology.

We also have a handy infographic detailing the differences and how they work together.


Electronic Signatures Vs. Digital Signatures – Defining the Difference

John Gunn is OneSpan’s CMO and brings two decades of leadership experience in the IT security and software segments. Before joining OneSpan, John led the Security Solutions Group at Harland Clarke where he launched a popular SaaS consumer identity protection and anti-fraud solution.