eIDAS: A sign of the times


by Joerg Lenz, Product Marketing Manager EMEA, Kofax, for Lexmark.

A signature has long been the ultimate proof of who we are. Signing on the dotted line is currently the most common form of legal authentication - and has been for centuries. Our most important moments are marked with a paper signature: a new house, a new car, even a new partner. 

Although perhaps not forever. The rise of email, electronic records and digitisation are changing how we sign documents. There is an important place for handwritten signatures, especially in face-to-face and in-person signing scenarios. And while signing by hand in wet ink is still important, electronic signing by hand using digital ink (as well as some other e-signing methods) can provide an even higher level of evidential weight when executed in the right way. Today, many companies that want to provide omni-channel services to their customers are moving away from having just one signing process and seeking out new trustworthy digital methods. 

A huge number of organisations, particularly in the banking, financial services and telecoms industries, currently require a handwritten signature to process the bulk of their transactions. Opening a bank account, applying for credit and signing a new contract all require us to add our own unique mark, traditionally as a “wet ink” signature.

In a recent study, 56 percent of companies reported using physical signatures for contracts and order forms - with 31 percent admitting that most of the paper documents they retain are only there for the signatures. Handling all those documents can also lead to more work for back-office staff. The act of collecting a physical signature is estimated to turn a three hour task into a three day process. And posting them back and forth between the branch and the customer adds administrative costs and makes it harder for new customers to sign up from anywhere at their convenience. Until now, it is a challenge many businesses have accepted as inevitable.

But not for long. The electronic signature has reached a tipping point and could be about to go mainstream. Until now, most businesses operating across the EU would primarily use wet ink signatures to be certain that their documents would hold up in the courts of another EU country. This is because when it came to e-signatures, not all European countries adopted the same approach. As a result, there are a wide variety of identification mechanisms out there. And while diversity is generally a good thing, this made cross-border signing complicated.

Since July 1 2016, however, the eIDAS Regulation (910/2014) has replaced 28 national laws on e-signatures and established an internal European market for cross-border transactions. The eIDAS Regulation aims to fill in some of the gaps of the Electronic Signatures Directive (1999/93/EC) which has been in place for the past 15 years. Enacted in 1999, the Directive failed to define the obligations for the national supervision of service providers, contained cross-border interoperability issues and did not cover new technologies such as mobile and the cloud.

The new Regulation enables EU countries to recognise each other’s different electronic identification systems. Moreover, it ensures that every individual’s electronic identity can be traced back to them and enables third parties to verify this online and free of charge. The primary aim of eIDAS is to facilitate cross-border access to public services. So, from September 2018, every EU country will have to recognise any EU-notified “electronic identification means”, equivalent to or better than, the electronic ID (eID) issued nationally.

The major benefit is that companies that work throughout the EU now know where they stand. The Regulation comes with streamlined definitions of the various terms around electronic signatures. By contrast, under the Directive, “advanced electronic signatures” was transposed in different ways into national law in each of the 28 countries of the EU. The Regulation also adds certainty to the legal status of the e-signature in cross-border transactions.

What the Regulation makes clear is that any court in the EU can now automatically recognise the validity of electronic signatures from another member state. So an electronic signature from France can be recognised by a German, Italian or Spanish court, for example. This is crucial in cases where the validity of a document is in dispute - and it represents a big step in the evolution of the e-signature.

Making it possible for two parties anywhere in Europe to enter into a binding agreement in seconds, the Regulation enables companies to finally realise the cost and efficiency advantages of e-signatures, which can help streamline their operations and reduce paperwork. Many organisations are already accomplishing these goals by working with a Trust Service Provider (TSP).

Organisations can now roll out e-signing across various EU countries using a single uniform platform. Within this they can offer different types of e-signature to allow for national preference, giving them the best of both worlds. With Kofax SignDoc, for example, businesses are not exclusively tied to a particular TSP, enabling them to tailor their processes to regional requirements and preferences. The service also supports a wide variety of other identification methods, such as IDs on SIM cards and eIDs on smart cards.

In a digital era of increasing globalisation, the scene is set for the rise of alternative forms of identification. With authentication solutions such as click-to-sign and knowledge based authentication, organisations have more choice than ever before. But the handwritten signature still has a role.

The digitisation of the business world means companies are increasingly looking for a way to combine handwritten signatures with digital processes. And when documents are signed electronically, organisations can define the level of evidential weight they want to rely on. With the new eIDAS Regulation, organisations can increase their use of e-signatures and move towards a 21st century way of doing business.  

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