E-signatures meet automation

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Electronic Signatures

Find out how the e-signature solution can transform your life

What is an electronic signature?

How secure is an electronic signature?

The legality of electronic signatures

What is an electronic signature?

An introduction to electronic signatures

An electronic signature, or e-signature, is the digital equivalent of a handwritten signature that indicates the acceptance of an agreement, contract, or other document. Electronic signature technology allows users to approve or certify documents without having to sign a physical piece of paper.

E-signatures are as legally binding as any other type of signature in many countries. They also allow you to avoid the hassle of passing paper documents from one person to the next. As a modern approach to the signing process, e-signatures are now used in all kinds of documents worldwide.

Types of electronic signatures

There are several ways to add signatures to digital documents, from scanning and uploading an image of a handwritten signature to using specific e-signature software. With services like Jotform Sign, users can securely sign documents with just one click.

There are four basic types of electronic signatures: click-to-sign, simple e-signatures (SESs), advanced e-signatures (AdESs), and qualified e-signatures (QESs). Each has its own advantages and use cases, so it’s important to know which situations they work best for.

  • Click-to-sign
    Click-to-sign electronic signatures can be completed with just the click of a button. Typically, a user will create a signature that is stored for future use by a software platform, or the platform will generate a signature for them. Then, as the user moves through a document, they can click a button to insert their legally binding signature where needed.
  • Simple electronic signatures
    Simple e-signatures (SESs) are the most widely used because they don’t involve any type of advanced identity verification and can be as basic as a name or initials typed in a document. They can be used on all kinds of documents, from internal employment agreements to attendance sheets to permission slips.
  • Advanced electronic signatures
    Advanced e-signatures (AdESs), on the other hand, implement a higher level of identity verification, as they are usually transmitted through e-signature software that can provide an audit trail. They are certified by a certificate authority (CA), an entity that issues and stores unique digital certificates to confirm a person’s identity.
  • Qualified electronic signatures
    A qualified electronic signature (QES) is the most secure form of electronic signature and meets the requirements outlined in the European Union’s electronic Identification, Authentication and Trust Services (eIDAS) regulation. This type of e-signature verifies the signer’s identity through a digital certificate. As an additional step, the signer’s identity is confirmed face-to-face — either online (via video) or in person.

The evolution of electronic signatures

While the general public has only become familiar with electronic signatures in the past 20 years, the technology has been developing for much longer than that. The concept of electronic signatures was first introduced in 1976 by American cryptologists Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman in a research paper titled “New Directions in Cryptography,” which presented forward-thinking ideas like public-key cryptography and digital signatures. Then, in 1977, Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Len Adleman invented a cryptosystem called the RSA algorithm that was the first technology to transmit a signature through an electronic message.

The first widely marketed software to offer digital signatures broke onto the scene in the late 1980s, followed by the first instance of embedding digital signatures into PDFs in 1999. In 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton passed the Electronic Signature in Global and National Commerce (E-sign) Act, which made digital signatures legally binding.

In 2008, ISO 32000 made the PDF a standard electronic document format and included guidance on how digital signatures in PDFs can be used to verify a signer’s identity. Since then, PDFs have been the primary tool for signing documents online, and e-signature technology has taken hold around the globe.

How secure is an electronic signature?

Electronic signatures are extremely secure — in fact, they’re generally more secure than pen-and-paper signatures. Wet signatures can be forged, and paper documents can be lost, damaged, or destroyed over time. Electronic signature software, on the other hand, is supported by advanced security practices such as encryption, digital certificates, and cryptographic algorithms that record audit trails and prevent signature tampering. Unlike paper documents, files with electronic signatures can be archived and kept safely for as long as needed without the risk of being damaged or lost.

The legality of electronic signatures

A number of countries have enacted specific legislation to recognize the validity of e-signatures.

Electronic Identification, Authentication, and Trust Services (eIDAS) — eIDAS is the EU regulation that replaced the e-signature directive of 1999/93/EC beginning on June 30, 2016. It outlines specific rules for electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the European market.

E-SIGN Act. The U.S. Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-SIGN) Act is a United States federal law that establishes guidelines and regulations for using electronic records and signatures in interstate and foreign commerce.

Uniform Electronic Transactions Act. The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) is a U.S. law that gives electronic contracts and electronic signatures the same legal recognition as paper agreements and wet signatures. It has been adopted in 49 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Learn more about e-signature laws in your country here.

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E-signatures meet automation