In a time with working from home and social separation, the need for digital services, including electronic signature solutions, has become ever more critical. When we cannot travel or meet to sign on paper, electronic signing is a must, unless you want to spend days or weeks shipping paper documents by mail or use a cumbersome and insecure print-sign-scan procedure. The advantages of electronic signing become obvious these days. We predict that this is not going to be reversed when society returns to normal; if someone starts using electronic signing, they will not want to go back to pen and paper. Corona may strongly contribute to a breakthrough for electronic signatures by forcing actors into use.
But why are we still talking about an upcoming breakthrough for electronic signatures? Firstly, electronic signature is a metaphor, a way of describing something new by reference to something well-known. The metaphor is good in the sense that an electronic signature essentially can fulfil the same purposes as a handwritten signature but is misleading when actors read “signature” to imply the same user experience. Well, solutions for scribbled-on-pad handwritten signature mimics of course exist, but these are “the fax machines of electronic signing”; a dead-end approach that merely prolongs use of paper-based mechanisms into the digital age. What we need is strong, cryptography-based electronic signatures that work with real digital documents.
Electronic signing goes across legal, societal, psychological, and technological areas. And perhaps, opposed to popular belief, it is not the legal or technological aspects that create the main problems but rather the following two issues which are the most severe:
As a third issue users must possess signing means. In many markets this is still a problem; in other markets such means are widespread but with little use.
We may draw a parallel to the way we discussed the Internet 15-20 years ago, arguing mainly on technology matters and a lot about trust. Nowadays, the Internet is a commodity and neither users nor businesses bother about the underlying technology. But for electronic signatures we are still discussing crypto algorithms and signature formats; the commodity stage where we just trust this to work has not been reached, as so many businesses are still digitally lagging behind when it comes to implementing electronic signing solutions. It is not difficult! For good, user-friendly, electronic signing solutions- it just takes a few signatures for most users to accept them. But they may need to be forced into making the first signature. And Corona may be the force.
It is important to observe that one always signs in a context, as part of a business process. A good, user-friendly, and efficient digital process is likely very different from the same process carried out by use of paper documents. Experience shows that an “electricity on the paper” approach usually yields a sub-optimal process. The four questions to ask are then: what to sign (which documents, at which step of the process), why (legal or other implications of the signing), by whom (authorisations, including needs for multiple signatures), and how (which type or “level” of electronic signature)? To effectively implement electronic signatures in business processes, all these questions must be answered; sometimes that is very easy, sometimes not.
Three of four questions are on process level, not on technology. Still, the fourth on selection of signing mechanism is important. And we are not used to think that way for paper processes, as handwritten is the only “technology” available for paper. In contrast, a digital approval may be given in many ways, from click-to-consent to qualified electronic signature. Which means there is a need for a selection that should be guided by three questions:
Then, the solution should be out of the box from your signing service provider. Available technology based on standards should easily be plugged in at the right stages of the process flow. To guide you, we are likely to see better descriptions of best practices on use of electronic signatures even in complex digital processes.
But in the selection of signature mechanism lies a remaining challenge, specifically for actors that operate cross-border, due to still unresolved legal issues for electronic signing.
This does not concern the overall legal situation. With the EU’s eIDAS Regulation, the legal applicability of electronic documents and electronic signatures has been settled for all EU and EEA member states. Outside of the EU, more and more countries have similar legislations, often using eIDAS as a blueprint, establishing the same principles of legal admissibility. So, the question “can we do this digitally” has been answered by a big YES, practically both globally and for all purposes.
But when electronic signatures are used for specific purposes, rules are set at national level. This means that question 1 above, about the legal requirements that apply, are answered differently from country to country for the same process. A process may be allowed to use a “simple” electronic signature, or even no signature, in one country, whilst another country requires “qualified electronic signature” (the eIDAS top level) for the same process. This severely complicates the situation for service providers that operate cross-border or in several markets, needing “national profiles” for their services to comply.
Signicat already provides the most complete and versatile signing service in the market. We are working towards providing a signing service that can handle any customer need, in all markets, and at all levels of signatures, with the best user-friendliness available and easy integration. It is not a silver bullet as you will still have to solve your process flow challenges; we can only provide advice here. But if the Corona situation has opened your eyes for the need for digital services and the advantages of electronic signing, Signicat would like to be your partner.
Product Manager at Signicat
May 28 2020