About a decade ago, the movement to go paperless with processes was a hot thing to invest in around silicon valley. Ever since that time, Electronic Signature platforms and applications have exploded into multi-million dollar growing companies producing diverse workflows that are intuitive and easy to use. Looking from inside the tech bubble, I didn't initially think there was much innovation to be had here, but boy was I wrong. Even though Digital Signatures have been around for a while, today they are part of a paradigm shift across all economies.
Why Identity Matters
One of the key differentiators between Digital Signatures and mere, simple Electronic Signatures, is that Digital Signatures have a certificate showing the identity of the signer and often the time of signing, in addition to providing tamper-proofing against any changes after signing to the document. Need I mention the implications on contracts alone?
Since this sounds great, one might wonder why aren't all signatures Digital Signatures? But putting a scribble on a PDF is easier for sure, however, the benefits outweigh the costs for Digital Signatures.
The movement towards more open economies with adequate cross border standardization is at the heart of how the EU is adopting and leading the new digital economy. The recently enacted eIDAS regulation which has provided the framework for cross border acceptance and standardization of eIDs and e-Signatures is a prime example of that. The regulation defines three tiers of e-signatures and their corresponding legal standing, defining qualified Electronic Signatures (Digital Signatures from qualified providers) to be always legally acceptable as the equivalent of a handwritten signature across all of the EU's economies.
This enables a German bank, for example, to accept the signature of a French national electronically on Cypriot soil at ease and without much legal concern. Another importance of the eIDAS regulation is pushing forth the adoption of eIDs that will help in the identity verification of signers.
The EU regulation is projected to have the highest impact globally to perpetuate the importance of Digital Signatures in the years to come, following this other countries, specially developing countries that are just starting to implement their e-government services or create/update their regulations around Electronic Signatures have followed. In their recent report on regulations around Electronic Signatures, Adobe showcases all of the recent regulations to recognize Digital Signatures as the legal equivalent of a handwritten signature.
Standardizing Digital Signatures
When passing on or viewing a digitally signed document through major platforms like Adobe, Microsoft and Google it is important to differentiate the signatures that have a trusted identity behind them, thus these companies continue to play a key role in setting up standards and corresponding accreditations that support trust of signed documents within their platforms for compliant Digital Signatures and their providers.
Two main examples are Adobe's AATL and the Microsoft Root Trust Program. On the other hand, signing workflow providers that have spent quite a bit of effort perfecting the user experiences of Electronic Signatures are now investing in adoption of identity based and compliant Digital Signatures. As publicly trusted Digital Signatures are backed by the known identity of the signer and time of signing, this information has to come from a trusted and accredited source and put in an embedded certificate.
That's where Certificate Authorities come into play, they've been enabling SSL connections on the internet for years and now more than ever are enabling identity-based Digital Signatures all around the world, with some of the world leaders like GlobalSign investing in the endeavors of geeks like myself to help bring more of these solutions to life.
In the US, a country that has adopted Electronic Signatures and gave them legal standing for years and the beacon of the free market, there's a debate whether all of this regulation effort will harm the freedom that a simple Electronic Signature recognition gives to businesses wanting to go paperless and mobile.
However, when it comes to crucial documents like those submitted to the FDA or a state engineering board, the importance of these regulations are being increasingly recognized and materialized. Add to that the recent court ruling in California on not accepting the legal standing of Electronic Signatures used by a lawyer and the need to have signatures shared outside your organization to have trust check marks instead of alert message when opened in an Adobe or Microsoft application, and the need to invest in Digital Signatures for you organization becomes apparent.
The biggest challenge facing publicly trusted Digital Signatures to catch up with Electronic Signatures adoption is ease of use, seeing that they take a lot more than just initials typed into a document. This is fueling an exciting challenge and a race of innovation that is unfolding today.
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