With the business world turning increasingly to digitally signed documents, the hand-written signature is on its last legs.
With more businesses and entities than ever before turning to digitally signed documents to solve security issues and improve logistics, the value and lifespan of the hand-written signature has come under serious scrutiny.
While there is a certain sentimentality – perhaps an emotional attachment bred at school level – still attached to an individual’s unique autograph, there are overarching ideals that suggest a future without it.
In fact the hand-written or ink signature has, in recent times, been likened to landline telephones and typewriters – age-old tools that, beyond their nostalgic appeal, are on their death bed. In the corporate world, which is increasingly aspiring towards a paperless future, pen-and-paper signing has been dubbed the enemy.
Leon van der Merwe, head of digital at PBSA and co-founder of South African based digital signature solution SignFlow, believes the hand-written signature’s time is slowly but surely coming to an end. “Ink signatures have been a part of human culture for aeons and, for their time, they had their place. But with today’s technology, there is no reason for us to hang on to something that, for all intents and purposes, is about as dependable as a fake Facebook profile.”
Ink signature snags
Van der Merwe points out the biggest problem with hand-written signatures is that they can easily be forged. “There are a number of ways in which digital signatures trump hand-written ones, but the most significant and compelling feature of digital above ink is that of security.
“Digital signatures use a cryptographic operation that creates a hash-code, which is unique to both the signer and the content. It cannot be copied, forged or tampered with. The whole process provides irrefutable proof of the signer’s identity, protects the data integrity of the document and provides non-repudiation of signed documents.”
Apart from ink signatures being prone to forgery, a general attitude of inattentiveness has crept in over the years, making them quite literally a joke. This is most applicable when it comes to transaction authorisation.
“When last did you notice a waiter or retail clerk checking the signature you pen on the receipt? And do you always sign legibly and consistently?” asks Van der Merwe.
As far back as 2001, Internet humourist John Hargrave experimented with this notion in a credit card prank in which he forged outlandish signatures on receipts. He reportedly signed receipts with, among others, “Mariah Carey”, “Beethoven” and “I stole this card”. Hargrave even signed in hieroglyphics. None of the merchants noticed. (Hargrave recounts his famous Credit Card Prank in his 2007 book, Prank the Monkey)
‘Sign here’ has been replaced with ‘Click here’
Former US president Bill Clinton lent credence to the solidity of signing digitally in 2000, when he signed the first US bill into law electronically.
Renowned Amercian business magazine, Forbes, begins its article on Clinton’s watershed signing with the line, “‘Sign here’ has just been replaced with ‘click here’.”
Another turning point in the life of the digital signature took place earlier this year, in July, when the European Union effected new guidelines for electronic signatures, giving them the same legal power as hand-written signatures.
“The benefits of employing digital business processes far outweigh the paper-reliant processes of days gone by and it’s only a matter of time before digital signatures take over from their expiring ink-on-paper counterparts,” says Van der Merwe.
Not only are digital signatures undeniably more secure and unable to be forged, he concludes, they are legally sound. “Importantly, they also create a digital audit trail and they don’t rely on filing, printing, scanning or back-and-forth emailing – paper-based processes that cost companies profoundly, in terms of both time and money.”