A digital signature, as suggested by the name, refers to the digital equivalent of a handwritten signature or a stamped seal. This created using an algorithm or mathematical technique that is used to validate the integrity or authenticity of a message, electronic document such as an Acrobat (.pdf) document or software. This type of signature is used to offer a high level of inherent security to any form of an electronic document. Since it is not possible to sign an electronic document physically, a digital signature comes in handy in such cases.
A digital signature is used to prevent the chances of tampering and fraud in case of any electronic communication that contains digitised documents. Like a manual signature, digital signature assigns identity, origination and status to an electronic document and inherently provides a form of consent by the person signing the document. Not only documents, digital signatures are also used to authorise/encrypt messages, transaction letters or any other form of electronic communication. This type of signature is widely accepted in all application processes and legal work. Whether it is any government organizations, bank, private firm or publishing office, a digital signature has same validity and worth as a more traditional form of handwritten signature on paper.
To understand the process of how digital signature works and why it has become an essential form of authorization in certain cases, it is important to know about the main components of a digital signature.
The first and foremost thing that a digital signature includes is the name of the individual who is using the signature or authorizing a digital document for distribution/access. This is important so as to reduce any chances of fraud that may be caused by another person sharing the same name.
Apart from the full name of the user, a digital signature should also contain various contact information such as telephone number, a valid email address and contact address that may be used to locate the person. This data is however encrypted and not accessible by every individual so as to ensure privacy of the user.
Another very important component of a digital signature is a public key. This is unique to each digital signature issued/generated. This key is used for encryption of the document being authorised and is essential for the verification process. The expiry date of a digital signature is also determined by its public key. This implies the time frame for which a particular digital signature will be valid. Public key is also useful in case you need to reset the signature, if necessary.
Serial number is another key component that acts as a unique identifier of a digital signature. This serial number is used by a certification authority who issues the digital certificate. This number is of prime importance to ensure the viability of a digital signature.
The workings of digital signature are based on the combined functionality of the public-private key. The use of keys to ensure functionality of a digital signature is the basic cryptography that forms the basis of this system. The pairing of public and private keys is used to encrypt or decrypt a document while sending it to a receiver and for verification of the signature. The private key is kept with the owner of the document and is confidential, while the public key is shared freely.
The technology uses a concept called ‘hash’ which is used to generate a unique identifier termed as a signature, through which a document is signed. Technically, every document has a unique hash and thus a unique signature. This ensures that the document is unique to the owner and no one else can reproduce, tamper or make duplicate copies of the document or the signature. Thus a digital signature effectively locks a document for further editing unless done by an authorised user and any changes done without such authorisation will be considered illegal, forged and invalid.
Actual Sending of the document
An individual who wants to send a duly signed digital document will use his private key to generate a hash and then send the document to the intended sender. The document is then sent to the receiver using the pubic key. The receiver will then validate the document using his public key and ascertain the authenticity of the document. The hash value of the received document is matched with the hash value of the original document and the identity is established and the document can be opened by the user if there is a match.
Benefits of Using Digital Signature
Some of the key benefits of digital signature are as follows:
- A digital signature validates an electronic document and it cannot be edited or tampered with once the signature has been created and assigned.
- In case you live geographically far away from the receiver, you can use the digital signature to quickly sign the document without physically going to the receiver. The process is fast, efficient and extremely secure.
- The concept of digital signature saves thousands of dollars for the organisation and these savings range from printing and publishing of the documents in their physical format to getting them signed and authorised.
- This completely digital technology is in compliant with ‘Go Green’ resolution as it promotes carbon/paper saving practices.
- The system promotes security and legal compliance while ensuring data integrity at the same time.
The following are some of the key tips and tricks for choosing the right digital signature for you.
It should be unique to the owner
A digital signature should always be unique and should be associated with only a single person. It should thus be available for use only by a single individual and it cannot be altered at a later stage so as to ensure uniqueness and integrity of the system.
Your digital signature should be designed in such a way that it supports the signing of a single document. This implies that it should be possible for more than one person sitting at different locations to sign into documents at a single time. If the digital signature prevents this, it could result in low productivity and reduced efficiency for a company especially in case of companies that have offices located all over the globe.
It should be possible to transfer the document to another location or to a third party. This feature is essential to decode the signal and verify its authenticity. This allows an individual to get access to the document. Therefore the digital signature should be readable using third-party compatible software.
This is another key aspect to be considered while choosing a right digital signature for you. An ideal signature should not take you more than 10 seconds to write and more than 2-3 clicks of the mouse to send to the intended recipient. This will ensure fast processing and higher productivity especially in case of large organizations where digital signatures are used widely.
Another most important aspect of considering a digital signature is that it should be safe and secure for use. Any document signed with a digital signature does not allow any alteration in the future. An attempt to tamper or break the digital signature should easily be detected or highlighted through an automated alarm.
Your digital signature should be kept safe as it is considered to be a legal and valid signature such as a physical signature on a document in a court of law. It must adhere to all the applicable standard regulations and protocols set up to ensure authenticity of the digital signature. Any digital signature solution should guarantee confidentiality, integrity and non-repudiation of the document and the data contained within it.
A good digital signature should allow process automation in case of bulk processing. Many banks, private firms and government organizations may be required to sign and send documents in bulk. In such a case, usage of digital signature can come in very handy. All the documents can be signed quickly and in a short time thereby reducing the processing time significantly and eliminating the need of human intervention in the process.
Digital signature finds huge usage and widespread application in a number of places. Many companies make use of this technology to verify the documents without having to use physical ones. Few places where digital signatures are used nowadays are:
Legal documents and other letters can be digitally signed using a digital signature, thereby complying with the legal process. This allows instant interaction with the clients even when they are far away from the firm. This saves a lot of time, effort and money in the process.
The process of digital signature has worked wonders for insurance companies. Insurance companies are required to send thousands of policy papers daily to their clients. Till now they used to send these documents through courier or mail but with the introduction of digital signatures, all the documents can now be securely shared electronically without the need to send them out physically.
Most of the mortgage companies are now using the system of digital signatures to sign their documents. Both the firm and clients can make use of this technology while communicating and exchanging documents with each other.
Colleges and Universities
Many documents and transcripts that need signature cannot be sent through emails. Hence students can now easily make use of the digital technology and send documents that are digitally signed to the universities and receive them back in the same format using the same procedure.
Digital signatures have surpassed the traditional process and approach of using a conventional manual handwritten signature to sign a document. Your digital signature should be designed in such a way that it allows faster processing and timely delivery while maintaining data integrity. Creating and using digital signature for businesses is a very important and efficient way of expediting the process of transmitting messages and securely exchanging information online. This is used both for personal and business matters and is an effective way to handle documents and authorize them almost immediately.