We all hope for lockdowns to end soon and life to go back to normal by the summer. We will not miss the isolation and closed pubs but we might fall in love with some of the tools that made our professional life possible. Digital signatures are an example of such a tool which has grown in popularity in 2020 and is likely to continue growing if the offices reopen. Let’s take a look at what we can expect from this year in terms of new ideas surrounding digital signatures. We start by a quick overview of what types of signatures we have and finish by speculating about innovation and convergence of digital signatures and identity.
1. The basics
There are different types of digital signatures. eIDAS, a European regulation which is still applicable to the UK, defined three types of signatures based on levels of reliability:
- Basic or Simple Electronic Signature (SES)
- Advanced Electronic Signature (AES)
- Qualified Electronic Signature (QES)
By levels of reliability we mean that each of these signatures has a different degree of verification of the signers identity.
A Basic Electronic Signature is usually more used in lower-value processes because there is no ‘foolproof way’ to confirm the identity of the signer.
An Advanced Electronic Signature, binds the signer’s identity to its signature by means of electronic means which are under the control of the signer and are uniquely attached to the document.
A Qualified Electronic Signature, on the other hand, binds the signer’s identity to its signature in the ‘most secure way’. QES does it by means of a personal, qualified certificate, issued by a Qualified Trust Service Provider (QTSP), ensuring the identity of the signer to the highest degree possible.
2. Trends in innovation
Advanced or Qualified?
We expect that the Advanced Electronic Signatures and Qualified Electronic Signatures will gradually converge in terms of their technological sophistication. For example, biometric authentication technologies are likely find popularity with digital signatures increasing verifiability of the signer. Multiple factor authentication limited identity verification to ‘things the signer knows’ or ‘things the signer has’. With biometrics we move into the realm of ‘things that signer is’ which offer the highest degree of reassurance.
Regarding functionality, we expect companies to continue innovating with value added features that happen before and after document signing. At minimum this might include just one extra step. It can also include multiple steps, in effect automating entire business processes. Here are some of the features we offer:
- Form filling and contract creation
- Taking a payment before or after a document is signed
- Conducting identity verification checks
- Self-service onboarding – re-configuring the workflow based on user choices about the product (for example, adding an extra signatory to a contract with a wealth manager if the client chooses a joint, rather than an individual account)
Form filling and dynamic contract creation
The Forms Feature allows our users to set up forms in their signing process to gather more information. For instance, a wealth manager that needs documents signed to onboard a new client can insert a form in the signature process where the new client has to specify their investment experience, preferences related to notifications or their bank details. The values are automatically included to the signed document, allowing faster and more efficient document automation.
What is more, even though the data in the signed document is ‘frozen’ as a pdf document, the data submitted in a form can be exported to a CRM cutting on admin time.
Taking a payment before or after a document is signed
The ability to take payments before or after signing a document may be useful to set up a retainer or to charge upfront for a service. In some cases professional service providers may require a payment to enable access to another document, such as a tax report or a final version of a contract.
Identity verification checks
Automated identity verification services are becoming increasingly popular to onboard clients remotely or to verify, for example, right to work for a new employee. There are complex rules governing what software rather than a human can do to fulfil legal obligations. Given the pandemic, a number of regulators encouraged the use of electronic services to keep the economy going. MyDocSafe works with several AML/KYC providers and offers a growing range of test types.
Self service onboarding
We define self-service onboarding as the ability of a client to conduct the entire onboarding process on their own. This may include:
- the ability to trigger the process by clicking on a button embedded on a website,
- making choices about product or service selection
- specify personal circumstances
All of these may affect the required compliance pathway for that client. The onboarding process can configure itself to present relevant questions or request signatures on additional forms or documents. It can also trigger notification to back office staff in specific circumstances. Self-service onboarding is now a popular way of opening up new bank accounts. We expect smaller businesses such as accountants, financial planners and real estate agents to endorse this technology next.
3. Evolution of legal frameworks
Legal frameworks usually play catchup to technological advancement. The world of digital signatures is no different. eIDAS was itself a reaction to the growing power of software and the observation that qualified digital signatures (which then required a physical device to store encryption keys) were expensive and did not find wide user acceptance.
We expect new pronouncements to be made by authorities regarding the use of digital identities to sign documents as well as evolution of laws regarding deeds. Electronic deeds are still not possible in the UK. It is possible however to witness a signature made with wet ink through a video session. In that case saving the video session as proof of witnessing is advised.
4. Verified identities
Verified identity is a concept that is promising to significantly speed up the adoption and acceptance of digital signatures. Several European countries have endorsed it already (for example France with FranceConnect service, Belgium with Mobile ID, Poland or Estonia) by offering a government backed or industry backed solution which allows users to sign documents after verifying their identity through a third party services, usually a bank or a telco.
This allows you to easily log in to governmental institutions or digitally sign documents with a qualified electronic signature. And the best of it all, there is no more need for external devices like a card reader, the only thing you need is your mobile device. Digital signatures and identity are finally starting to work together.
5. The question of intent
Digital means of conducting business are improving fast and their adoption is growing not least because of Covid-19. However, one must keep in mind that technology is just a tool. Let’s take the concept of intent, for example. Even the most secure way of signing documents does not automatically prove intent, i.e. whether or not the person wanted to sign anything. Or wanted to sign “A” document but not “THIS” document. It is important to hang onto contextual data such as correspondence that indicates the intent. It may become useful in an unlikely event of a dispute. At MyDocSafe we record contextual data that our users send with digital signature requests to remind them of that context.
Digital signatures and identity are converging. The UK may not be in the vanguard of this trend yet but if we hear any relevant news from the UK government, we’ll cover it in our blog.