This articles explores the differences between paper based, electronic and digital signatures.
A comparison of wet signatures to electronic and digital signatures
What is a wet signature? In 1677, England passed the law “Statute of Frauds”. The law specified certain contacts must be in writing and signed. The new law became the driving force that would see the signing of documents become an everyday occurrence.
A signature on paper, or wet signature, is any mark that a person places on a paper document to signify that they agree to the stipulations specified in the document. Furthermore, the signature serves to identify the signer since each person’s signature is unique to them.
Wet signatures are trustworthy; however, they do present some problems.
Signatures can be forged, paper-based processes are slow, and they can be costly in terms of time and money.
To overcome the inherent weaknesses of signing on paper, electronic and digital signatures have become more and more popular.
What is an electronic signature?
Any mark that is made on an electronic document with the intention to serve as a signature is seen as an electronic signature. In South Africa, electronic signatures are considered legal for signing most documents.
However, electronic signatures are low trust signatures since an electronic signature does not contain any evidence to tie the identity of the signer to the document. Furthermore, there is no proof that the document did not change after signing.
In order to protect against these weaknesses, digital signatures were introduced.
High trust digital signatures leverage Public Key Cryptography to protect documents. To digitally sign a document, the user is first issued a digital certificate that ties their real-life identity to a digital identity. At the time of signing, the user’s digital certificate is embedded into the document to serve as non-refutable evidence of the signer’s identity. Multi-factor authentication such as passwords and one-time PINS can help make verifying the signer’s identity even stronger. Strong encryption techniques protect the documents against tampering. Free applications such as Adobe Reader can automatically verify that the document has not changed after signing.
To further increase security, the timestamp in the digital signature provides proof of the time of signing. In a court, the party looking to rely on the digital signature will have the necessary evidence to prove the identity of the signer and that the document has not changed after signing.
Advanced Electronic signatures
In South Africa, Advanced Electronic Signatures are a subset of digital signatures. The Advanced Electronic certificate is issued by a vendor accredited by the South African Accreditation Authority (SAAA).
These signatures are deemed by law to be particularly reliable and carry prima facie validity. If a dispute arises, it is up to the person that disputes the signature to prove that the signature is not valid.
Advanced Electronic signatures carry the highest trust and can move the burden of proof away from the defendant to the plaintiff.