Types of electronic signatures, what eIDAS says
First, let’s take a look at the different existing signature types. The distinction is based on the electronic Identification, Authentication and trust Services regulation (eIDAS), set up in 2016. This regulation establishes the legal structure for electronic identification, signatures, seals and documents throughout the EU.
It also classifies the level of assurance for the different types. This level is determined by multiple factors, which we will summarize here under in the table. Based on the assurance it offers, eIDAS recognizes three types:
- Simple or Basic electronic signature (SES)
- Advanced electronic or digital signature (AES)
- Qualified electronic or digital signature (QES)
Difference between digital and electronic signature
As you can see above, there is also a difference between a digital and an electronic signature, even though many use the two terms interchangeably. The difference has mainly to do with technology.
A digital signature always relies on a crypto-based technology. This means that the content of the document will always be locked and secured when placing a digital signature, you always have the guarantee that the content of the document cannot be changed anymore after signing. This is not necessarily valid for an electronic signature. For example: an electronic signature can also be the image of a manually drawn signature pasted for example in a Word document. Where you aren’t thus sure that the Word document has not been changed anymore after signature.
Actually, the term electronic signature is a collective noun. Therefore, a digital signature can be an electronic signature, but an electronic signature is not always a digital signature. Like a dog is an animal but an animal not necessarily a dog. Further below the differences will even become more clear.
The 4 key questions to select the right type of electronic signature
Now, let’s see how you can determine the level of assurance for an electronic signature. To make it simple, you can ask yourself these 4 key questions.
Does the signature needs to uniquely link to the signatory?
Do we want to make absolutely sure we can identify the signatory?
Do we want to detect any changes in the document after the signature?
Do we want to be 100% confident that the signature is created under the sole control of the signatory?
If the answer is a ‘definitely yes’ on all 4, you need the highest level of assurance: the QES.
If the answer is ‘desirable’ or not a ‘definitely yes’ on all 4, you might go for the AES.
If the stakes are not that high, or there are other F2F identification circumstances, or you just want a reading confirmation for the minutes of a meeting for example, the easiest solution, SES will do the job.
Some electronic signature examples
After reading this you might think ‘ I want to be sure in all cases’. Of course, this makes sense but let’s take a look at some examples to explain better when you need which kind of security.
We already mentioned the example of the minutes of a meeting. In this case SES level will do.
However, when it comes to a mortgage or a $ 100.000 deal, you want to make sure the signatory has the legal mandate and is who he claims to be. In F2F transactions or within an authenticated client environment, an SES could still apply. However, both AES and QES are advisable when these transactions happen for example online. It’s all in the circumstances of the complete process.
Details of the different types of electronic signatures
In the table below, you can find the details per signature type.
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