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What is a digital signature? A complete guide for 2024

Digital signatures and electronic signatures are sometimes used interchangeably, which is a common mistake. Think of digital signatures as the technique by which the signature is applied and electronic signatures as the type of signature. 

What is a digital signature?

A digital signature is a virtual stamp that proves who sent a digital message or file and that it hasn’t been tampered with. It works like a lock and key: the sender uses a secret key to create the signature, which is a unique code for that message. Others can use the sender’s public key to unlock and check the signature. If the code matches, it means the message is authentic and hasn’t been changed.

This is crucial for online security and trust because it ensures that information comes from the right source and hasn’t been altered after signing.

What is the difference between an electronic signature and a digital signature?

  • The difference between electronic signatures and digital signatures is that an electronic signature is a broad term that refers to any electronic process that signifies agreement to a document or contract, including clicking an “I agree” button or typing your name into a signature field.
  • A digital signature, however, is a specific type of electronic signature that uses encryption technology to verify the authenticity of the signer and ensure that the document has not been altered since it was signed.

See the table below!

Digital signatureElectronic signature
Digital signature ensures the integrity and authorship of your contracts.Electronic signature ensures the signature is connected to the signer.
Digital signature ensures your signed contracts are tamper-proof, preventing changes after they are signed.Electronic signature indicates that there’s an intent of the signer to agree to the content as specified in the contract.
Digital signature is a method to guarantee integrity.Electronic signature is a type of signature.
Digital signature is generated by software technology.Electronic signature is generated by the signer either through a click of a button or a hand-drawn signature on an electronic device.

How do digital signatures work?

Digital signatures use a mathematical technique used to guarantee the authorship and integrity of a message or piece of data. This works for any kind of data. For us, it’s contracts; but it could also be an email or a bank transaction. 

The de facto standard for creating and validating digital signatures is called Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). In a PKI, a private key is used to sign the message, and a public key is used to validate the signature. A certificate issued by a trusted third party, called a Certificate Authority (CA), is used as proof that the holder of the private key is who they say they are.

Digital signatures work the exact same way that handwritten signatures do. They are unique to each person. Digital signatures adhere to the standard format of PKI. PKI states that the document provider, in this case, Oneflow, uses an algorithm to create a number sequence which are called keys. One public and one private key is created during each digital signature. The private key is used to sign, while the public key is used to verify. 

Every time a person signs a document electronically, the signature is created using the signer’s private key. This is securely contained by the signer. During the signing process, the algorithm becomes the cipher, with which it matches the data from the signer with the signed document, then encrypts it. The encrypted data is the digital signature. The signature is recorded with a date and time stamp for that document, and, if any changes are made to the document after signing, the digital signature is no longer valid. 

Maintaining the integrity of the digital signature is vitally important. According to the terms set out by PKI, the keys must be created, conducted, and saved in a secure manner that requires a reliable Certificate Authority. Oneflow meets all the PKI requirements for safe and secure digital signatures.

But just what is a digital certificate?

A digital certificate is an electronic document that is used to verify the identity of a person, organisation, or device. It contains information about the entity it belongs to, including their public key, name, and other identifying details. 

Digital certificates are used to secure digital signatures used in online transactions, such as e-commerce transactions, online banking, and secure email communication. They are also used to secure network connections and to authenticate users accessing a network. Digital certificates are issued by trusted third-party organisations known as Certificate Authorities (CAs), which verify the identity of the entity requesting the certificate and issue the certificate once the verification process is complete.

And a Certificate Authority (CA)?

A Certificate Authority (CA) is a trusted entity that issues digital certificates, validating the authenticity of websites or users. It ensures secure online communication by confirming the identities of parties involved, safeguarding against fraud and eavesdropping. CAs play a pivotal role in security and encryption.

How do I create a digital signature?

You can create a digital signature using a variety of software options. Here at Oneflow, we offer digital signature solutions for over 5 different types of e-signatures, and cover solutions for the entire contract management process. To learn more about the different kinds of electronic signatures, read more here, or click here for more information about digital contracting

How to create a digital signature - Oneflow

8 benefits of digital signatures

Digital signatures are not only more secure than traditional signatures, but they can also improve workflow efficiency. Here are some ways that digital signatures can benefit your workflow:

Faster document processing

Traditional signatures require printing, signing, scanning, and emailing or mailing documents, which can take a considerable amount of time. With digital signatures, you can sign documents instantly, reducing the time it takes to process documents.

Remote signing

Digital signatures allow you to sign documents from anywhere in the world, as long as you have an internet connection. This means that you don’t have to be physically present to sign documents, making it easier to complete transactions with clients and partners in different locations.

Automated workflows

Digital signatures can be integrated into automated workflows, streamlining document processing and reducing the risk of errors. Automated workflows can also send reminders to signers, ensuring that documents are signed in a timely manner.

Increased security

As previously mentioned, digital signatures are more secure than traditional signatures. They use encryption technology to verify the authenticity of the signer, making it difficult for forgers to create fraudulent signatures.

Reduced costs

They can reduce costs associated with printing, scanning, and mailing documents. They can also reduce the need for physical storage of documents, as they can be stored electronically.

Uniquely yours

Your handwritten signature is yours and should be hard to copy. A digital signature is even more uniquely yours. Every signature contains identifying information unique to each signer.

Digital signatures are uniquely yours - Oneflow

Digital signatures are globally accepted 

PKI-based digital signatures are standard for institutions, governments, and organisations around the world, reducing the need to reinvent the wheel.

Tamperproof

Once a document is signed with a digital signature, it’s sealed. Any changes made afterward will invalidate the original signature. You can be safe knowing that it’s exactly what you agreed to.

Digital signatures are tamper proof - Oneflow

How do different industries use digital signatures?

Digital signatures are used in a variety of industries, including:

Real estate

They are commonly used in real estate transactions, as they can speed up the process of buying and selling properties. They also reduce the need for physical paperwork, making the process more efficient.

Healthcare

Digital signatures are used in healthcare to sign medical records, prescriptions, and other important documents. They help to ensure that patient information is secure and that records are accurate.

Digital signatures in banking

Digital signatures are used in banking to sign loan agreements, account openings, and other financial documents. They help to ensure that transactions are secure and that customer information is protected.

Digital signatures in education

Digital signatures are used in education to sign enrollment forms, transcripts, and other important documents. They help to ensure that student information is secure and that records are accurate.

Consulting

In the consulting industry, digital signatures streamline contract management, enabling consultants and clients to sign documents electronically. This eliminates paperwork and accelerates the signing process for engagement letters, proposals, and non-disclosure agreements, while maintaining legal validity and creating an audit trail.

Media/Entertainment

Digital signatures are essential in the media/entertainment industry for licensing and copyright management. Content creators can electronically sign contracts, granting usage rights and distribution agreements securely. Digital signatures protect intellectual property, validate digital content, and prevent unauthorised modifications or infringements.

Digital signatures for finance

Digital signatures are extensively used in finance for authentication and authorisation of transactions. They enhance security in online banking, e-commerce, and mobile payments. Clients can securely sign loan agreements, investment contracts, and other financial instruments remotely. Digital signatures mitigate fraud risk, ensure compliance, and provide a seamless customer experience.

Tech

The tech industry relies on digital signatures for software authenticity and integrity. Developers digitally sign software packages and updates to verify their genuineness and protect against malware. Digital signatures are also used in contracts, licensing agreements, and intellectual property protection, facilitating secure collaborations, acquisitions, and partnerships within the tech sector.

Secure your digital signature with Oneflow

Your signature is as personal as the three digits on the back of your bank card, so why not ensure that your digital signature’s as safe and secure as your bank account? With Oneflow, you can do just that. 

A Oneflow digital signature comes with a signing certificate, and digital signature assurances, so you can be sure that your digital signature is as safe as houses. 

FAQs

What is Public Key Infrastructure?

Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is a set of policies and procedures that are needed to create, store and revoke digital signatures (along with other things). PKI is a facilitator when it comes to securing the electronic transfer of information such as digital signatures and other network activities. In this case, it binds the public key with the identities of people or organizations (i.e. their private key). The binding of this information is done due through a process of registration and issuance of certificates by a Certificate Authority (CA).

What is a Certificate Authority?

A certificate authority (CA) is an entity that stores, signs, and issues digital certificates. A digital certificate certifies the ownership of a public key. As digital signatures use both public and private keys, the CA acts as a trusted third party to verify the authenticity of a signed document. CAs are typically organizations that have been universally recognized as reliable for ensuring key security and are able to provide valid digital certificates. The CA must be agreed upon by both the entity sending the document and the recipient signing it. 

Why would I use a digital signature?

You would use a digital signature for a myriad of reasons. To sign a contract, a document, agree to a set of terms and conditions etc. Especially in the post covid period, a written signature is harder and more difficult to acquire. As such, many countries and global regions have established e-signature standards based on existing digital signature technology. It does refer to local standards, but working with a PKI and a trusted CA ensures that the digital signature is enforceable and accepted in each local market. It also ensures that digital signatures use an international and widely accepted standard technology that prevents forgery or changes to a document after it has been signed.

Can digital signatures be copied?

Short answer. No. It is not possible to copy a digital signature.

Long answer. Also no. Understanding digital signatures should elaborate this more: A digital signature is a mathematical technique used to guarantee the authorship and integrity of a message or a piece of data. It could be any kind of data. When it comes to Oneflow, it’s contracts But it could be anything else that requires verification, such as verifying an email, or signing a form to pick up a package.

Can digital signatures be edited?

Again, no. Digital signatures have a secure system in place to ensure accuracy and prevent forgery from occurring. This is again due to them using industry-standard PKI and a Certificate Authority.

Are digital signatures secure and safe?

Yes, digital signatures are generally considered secure. They provide a reliable method for verifying the authenticity and integrity of digital documents, transactions, and communications. Digital signatures use cryptographic algorithms to generate unique digital fingerprints of the content being signed. These fingerprints, known as digital signatures, are based on the signer’s private key and can be verified using their corresponding public key. This process ensures that the document has not been tampered with since it was signed and that it was indeed signed by the claimed sender. While no system is completely immune to attacks, digital signatures provide a robust and widely accepted security mechanism for verifying the legitimacy of digital data.

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