Digital Signatures: Good Enough For Business?

2434691031_dc47fc162aEven as a web worker, there are times when we need to sign paperwork. Maybe a new client is ready to sign a contract with you. Maybe an employer needs you to sign a form. No matter why you need to get your name down on a piece of paper, it can put a crimp in a web worker’s style. After all, who among us wants to have more hard copy around than is absolutely necessary? Luckily, more and more companies are accepting digitally signed documents — even the IRS will accept digital signatures on most forms. You can sign contracts, forms and other documents with just a click of your mouse.

Digital Signatures: The Facts

A digitally signed contract is just as legitimate as one signed by hand in most countries. There is plenty of precedent dating from the time when people were first signing and returning contracts by fax. If you ever need to, you can take someone to court to enforce a contract signed electronically. However, policies on accepting digital signatures can vary from company to company. Where one company will be perfectly comfortable accepting all your paperwork by email, another may want you to fax or mail in signed documents. We’re moving towards being able to do business without hard copies of our documents, but we’re not quite there.

The Strength of a Signature

There are several different ways that you can sign a document electronically. The big difference is in how the signature is verified:

  • Your computer: Some software timestamps your signature and records the computer you used.
  • Your IP address: Especially common with online services, your signature is recorded along with your IP address
  • Public Key Infrastructure: Your signature is verified with a certificate issued by a trusted third party.

There’s a trade-off between the options: It’s harder to verify the first two options than PKI, but it can be difficult for an individual to get the required certificate for PKI. There are some online applications that use their own certificates in order to verify your signature, such as RightSignature. In comparison, Adobe Acrobat Professional allows you to create a digital signature that is verified based on the computer used. It can also use a certificate, but if you do not provide it with one, Adobe Acrobat will rely on your computer for verification.

Choosing a Signature Solution

Assuming that your employer or client doesn’t have an online application or a software package that they’d prefer you to use for your digital signatures, you’ll have to decide which option works best for you. It’s hard to find an option that is free as well as trustworthy. As long as you’re willing to spend a little bit of money, though, you can manage your contracts inexpensively. Personally, since I already have Adobe Acrobat on my computer, I rely on it, although I do not have a certificate to use with the software. While this is considered to be a less secure system than PKI, I haven’t had any problems with any document I’ve signed (even my 1099s). The downside is that Adobe Acrobat does not manage the entire signature process in the way that many online applications can — some will even send out emails reminding people to sign contracts.

What app do you use for digital signatures?

Image by Flickr user jk5854

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