The basics: What is a digital signature?

What is a digital signature

There is so much information about digital signatures. But what is a digital signature? This blog goes back to the basics.

A digital signature is the digital counterpart of the handwritten version in the offline world. Technically, it is a mathematical code that ensures the document cannot be changed after signing. This also goes for elements related to the identity of the person. Legally, it captures a person’s intent to agree to the content of a(n) electronic document, contract or a set of data.


Difference between an electronic and digital signature

You may have noticed that the terms electronic signatures and digital signatures are used inter-changeably. However, there is a difference. A digital signature is always an electronic signature while an electronic signature is not always a digital signature. The difference is that a digital signature relies on a cryptography-based technology which provides an extra level of security and integrity of the document. An electronic signature, on the other hand, can be merely the image of your signature pasted in a Word document. It can even be your mail signature.


Technical and legal features of a digital signature

Digital signatures are thus the most advanced and secure type of electronic signatures. They use the standards and procedures of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) to sign electronic data with a cryptographic key. The contents of the message cannot be modified or tampered with, without breaking the validity of the digital signature.

You can use digital signatures to comply with the most demanding regulatory requirements as they provide the highest levels of assurance about each signer’s identity and the authenticity/integrity of the documents they sign.

The European legislation that oversees electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions is called eIDAS (910/2014). This legislation recognizes different types of electronic signatures which will be explained later on in this document. The differences are mainly based on 2 key items:

1. the identity of the signer and
2. the integrity of the document.

Basically the question you have to ask, is “How sure are we about the identity of the signer?” and “How sure are we that the document could not be tampered with after signature?”. Under eIDAS, all three signature types can be legally effective. The difference between them is the evidence that is needed to reassure a court that the signature is genuine and intentionally applied to a particular document.

And that, in a nutshell, is the answer to the question: “What is a digital signature?”.


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