Cybersecurity and E-signature: What You Need to Know

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” - Henry Ford, on his innovations in automobile manufacturing.

In an 1875 debate in the US Congress, senators warned the public about automobiles. “Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline might attain speeds of 14 or even 20 miles per hour,” the record says, among other dire warnings. Some thought that this new type of transport was demonstrably inferior to travel by horse.

You can find similar concerns about any relatively new technology. It’s assumed that the old way of doing things is always better — and never mind that the old way was just an attempt to deal with limitations that no longer exist.

The debate about e-signature versus a traditional pen-and-paper signature is a perfect example. It’s easy to be concerned about cybersecurity and e-signatures, while overlooking the flaws in the analog option.

In fact, e-signatures can be more secure than paper and ink signatures. Here’s what you need to know about e-signatures and cybersecurity.

Security risks of paper signatures

Before there was a digital alternative, pen-and-paper signatures were the most secure option. Ideally you would have a witness to the signing to verify the signer’s identity. If the authenticity of the signature ever came into doubt, a signature forensics expert could verify it. What’s more, the paper copy could be stored for an indefinite amount of time; we have signed documents that are centuries old.

If you have a home office you know the risks of paper signatures: children, dogs, spilled coffee, unruly filing cabinets, the vacuum, wind. It's risky business to sign paper documents even in the comfort of your own home. And, of course, paper signatures are vulnerable to fire, flood and other natural disasters. You can solve that problem by making copies, but that introduces another vector for tampering. Or you could scan all the documents into a computer system — but then they’re just e-signatures without the additional security an e-signature platform provides.

Cybersecurity and e-signatures

E-signatures can be more secure than their paper counterparts.

Electronic signatures have many layers of security and authentication built into them, along with court-admissible proof of transaction:

  • Electronic record: Unlike wet signatures, e-signatures also come with an electronic record that serves as an audit trail and proof of the transaction. The audit trail includes the history of actions taken with the document, including the details of when it was opened, viewed and signed. If one of the signers disputes their signature, or if there’s any question about the transaction, this audit trail is available to all participants in the transaction and can resolve such objections.
  • Certificates of completion: Detailed certificates of completion can include specific details about each signer on the document, including the consumer disclosure indicating the signer agreed to use e-signature, the signature image, key event timestamps and the signer's IP address and other identifying information.
  • Tamper-evident seal: Once the signing process is complete, all documents are digitally sealed using Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), an industry-standard technology. This seal indicates the electronic signature is valid and that the document hasn’t been tampered with or altered since the date of signing.

The right e-signature solution should be able to provide all of the above. In addition, they should have certifications from neutral third parties that prove their claims. The ISO 27001:2013 certification is the highest level of global security assurance available.

Types of documents that can be signed electronically

Virtually any business agreement that can be signed with a pen and paper can be an e-signature document:

  • Purchase agreements
  • Employment contracts and offer letters
  • Power of attorney forms
  • Rental agreement forms
  • Profit and loss statements
  • Tax forms
  • Proposals
  • Statements of work template

And many more.

In the United States, the ESIGN Act and the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) give electronic signatures the same validity as wet ink signatures in most cases.

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