Opinion Piece: Electronic signature solutions improve efficiency, reduce costs and increase security


Completing important documents and contracts using the traditional ‘wet ink’ signature method has become out-dated in today’s digital, fast-paced electronic world. Collecting signatures typically ends up as a long and inefficient process – printing, signing, scanning, sending (via email, mail or courier) and reprinting – which has to be repeated multiple times in order to obtain all relevant signatures. This cumbersome process wastes time and money, while adding security vulnerabilities along the way.

The majority of organisations, despite the inherent inefficiencies and the fact that they have invested significant sums on automating their business workflows and processes, still end up printing paper solely for the purposes of obtaining signatures. Besides the problems of delayed projects and additional costs, legislative compliance, such as PoPI, increasingly requires proof of signer identity and document integrity, which traditional print-scan-email methods do not cover.

Electronic signatures in general can help organisations to address these challenges, with tools that plug in to widely used document authoring and content management software and ensure security and productivity. They allow users to quickly and easily sign documents in their digital form, without the need to resort to printing, scanning or physically signing them.

South African law and the Electronic Communications and Transactions (ECT) Act recognise two different types of secure electronic signatures. Ordinary electronic signatures allow users to digitally ‘sign’ a document with an image of their signature, while providing security in the form of digital certificates generated by the electronic signature software. Advanced electronic signatures are far more secure since they require certificates issued by an accredited Certificate Authority (CA). A third type of ‘digital signature’, where an image of the signer’s signature is simply pasted onto a document, is valid under local laws as an ordinary electronic signature, although it has very little authentication and is therefore not a recommended solution.

Advanced electronic signatures deliver the highest levels of security and ensure that they cannot be copied, altered or tampered with by using digital "fingerprints”, or coded messages, which are unique to both the document and the signer and bind the two together. They are made up of three elements: a unique digital certificate for each signer, a private key which only the signer has access to, and a public key which allows anyone to validate the signature. They can also include a graphical signature, such as an image of the signer’s ink signature or an official seal, as well as the typed out name, date, time stamp, and reason for signing.

Advanced electronic signatures are based on Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology, the only signature standard that accepted by governments around the world, guaranteeing secure implementation and compliance with all relevant laws and regulations. Any changes made to the document after signing will invalidate the signature, which in turn protects against tampering and signature forgery. Signed electronic documents and forms can be easily verified by anyone at any time using common applications such as Microsoft Word and Adobe Reader.

Using an effective electronic signature solution can assist organisations to complete the automation of content management processes, and take one step closer towards the paperless office. By ensuring documents can be signed and transferred electronically throughout the organisation and between the relevant parties, the need for printing, signing and scanning documents is eliminated, improving efficiency and security. 


Photo courtesy of www.itnaledi.co.za