The use of electronic signatures has become more and more widespread in recent years, during which we have observed an increasing interest in the possibilities offered by the digitization of processes and the dematerialization of documents. However, there is still a long way to go and many myths and clichés that must be dispelled and clarified in the meantime.
First of all, when we talk about digitizing signatures, we often think that this process consists of scanning the simple handwritten signature on a contract or a paper document: nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, digitizing processes is about completely rethinking them in order to make them more efficient, eliminating the diseconomies that often characterize traditional processes. Again, it is not uncommon for people to consider the scanned signature as equivalent to a simple electronic signature: this is also not accurate.
So then, what do we mean and what does the Italian and European regulatory system mean, when we talk about the electronic signature? What differentiates an electronic signature from a scanned handwritten signature before the law? And above all, why is it time to say goodbye to paper contracts for good?
Electronic signature: what it is and how it works
For the definition of electronic signature, the Italian Digital Administration Code (so-called CAD, Legislative Decree 82/2005) refers directly to the eIDAS Regulation (EU Regulation 910/2014), which governs it at the European level.
The electronic signature is therefore clearly defined as a “set of data in electronic form, enclosed or connected by logical association to other electronic data and used by the signer to sign” (art.3, point 1, no.10, eIDAS Regulation). By “data in electronic form” this refers to, for example, a credential pair consisting of username and password.
This is the definition of the electronic signature in its simplest form and, as we shall see, there are other types of electronic signatures that present greater complexity and different degrees of security. But if we dwell for a moment on this basic definition, it is immediately evident that the reference is always and exclusively to “data in electronic form,” which constitutes the signature, which is linked to “other electronic data,” that is, data that constitutes the electronic document.
Nothing else is needed to understand that the scanning of a handwritten signature affixed on a paper document does not fall within this definition in any way and therefore, it cannot be considered a simple electronic signature.
Moreover, a scanned handwritten signature, in case of a legal dispute, cannot be submitted to a handwriting expert and therefore it is not possible to confirm its authenticity. After all, a scanned handwritten signature does not fall within any legally recognized definition, as it does not fall within the definition of an electronic signature, nor can it guarantee the requirements that characterize the traditional handwritten signature.
Having debunked these myths and clarified that a scanned signature is not able to guarantee the legally valid signature of contracts and documents, let’s try to understand how the different types of electronic signatures provided by the legal system can be used to guarantee the validity of our contracts.
The validity of electronic signatures according to the law
Electronic signatures are not all the same. The eIDAS Regulation identifies three types of electronic signatures, which are also recognized by Italian law: simple electronic signature, advanced electronic signature, and qualified electronic signature. Moreover, Italian law recognizes a fourth type of signature, typical of our system and widely used: the digital signature, which is a particular type of qualified electronic signature.
Article 20 of the CAD, at paragraph 1-bis, states that the computer document signed with a digital or qualified electronic signature or with an advanced electronic signature satisfies the requirement of written form and has the effectiveness provided for by art. 2702 of the Civil Code.
On the other hand, if an IT document is signed with a simple signature, in the event of a legal dispute its probative value will have to be assessed in court, taking into consideration the security, integrity, and immutability characteristics of the specific solution used.
As we have already mentioned, the simple electronic signature can also consist of a simple pair of credentials (such as username and password) and completed by a point&click solution that allows the signer to proceed to sign the document or contract. Solutions of this type can be made more robust by also providing a strong authentication step through an OTP code, which is sent to the signer by SMS or through an APP and allows him to confirm his willingness to sign.
This is a feature that, in the event of litigation, can provide valuable evidence to support the robustness of the signature solution. The simple electronic signature can be used in all cases for which the law does not specifically require the use of advanced, qualified, or digital signatures.
From a technological point of view, an advanced electronic signature may not even differ from a simple electronic signature: the signature can be made through the use of an OTP code, or, as often happens in the bank by signing on the pad, through the use of biometric data. What really characterizes an advanced electronic signature is the need to identify the signer in advance and collect his consent to the use of the signature solution.
In addition, those who make such a solution available to their clients (again, let’s use the example of the bank where we are going to open a new account), must have appropriate insurance coverage and must be able to provide assistance if necessary.
Finally, to conclude this brief look at the signature types, we recall that the qualified electronic signature and the digital signature, to be defined as such, must be based on the use of a valid qualified certificate of signature, issued by a Certification Authority.
The use of the signature certificate, in addition to the characteristics already described for the advanced signature, constitutes the distinctive element before the law. Only for some specific cases, such as the sale of real estate and other cases identified by art. 1350 of the Civil Code, Italian law provides for the use of digital or qualified signatures. In all other cases, which are actually the majority, an advanced signature or a simple signature may be suitable to ensure the validity of contracts and documents.
What are the benefits of electronic signature?
The qualified electronic signature and the digital signature have a cost that inevitably falls on the signatory. Therefore, except in the case of professionals who have a digital signature because they need to frequently sign large quantities of documents, for which the law specifically provides for the use of a digital signature, most citizens do not feel the need to have a solution of this type. So how do you get your clients to sign your electronic documents?
If you don’t want to fall back into the vicious circle of contracts being printed, signed, and scanned countless times, the best option is to provide your clients with a simple or advanced e-signature solution that allows them to sign easily and companies to capture signed contracts in full digital mode.
The first of the benefits of electronic signature is the possibility of reducing to a minimum the production and exchange of paper documents, even to zero.
The use of electronic signature solutions also has a positive impact in terms of environmental sustainability, precisely because it makes the use of paper unnecessary and helps to reduce the need for areas to store paper documents. It goes without saying that time is also greatly reduced, because it is no longer necessary to print and scan a contract several times, especially when you need to capture the signatures of more than one person.
In addition, as we have seen, a simple or advanced signature can also be affixed through point&click solutions and with the use of OTP codes.
This means that it is possible to sign from anywhere and from any device, without the signer necessarily having to go to a counter or an office. The contract, for example, can be sent by email or made available on a dedicated web area. The signer can then access, even using his smartphone, the document to be signed, view and sign it, then download a copy of the contract.
The enabling potential of electronic signatures
One of the biggest benefits of electronic signature, however, lies in the fact that its implementation can enable several other functions and help make business processes more efficient.
For one thing, being able to sign a contract remotely, fully digitally and from any device, is a convenience we can all appreciate. As a result, an e-signature solution can be effectively implemented within more articulated and complex digital onboarding processes to provide a complete and satisfying customer experience to customers and users. Deciding to digitize signature capture, then, can be the perfect opportunity to rethink business processes and customer interactions, and to improve them.
In addition, once contracts have been signed electronically, they can be immediately transferred to a compliant digital storage system. This process ensures the immodifiability and integrity of the documents over time and guarantees their legal validity over time, as well as the possibility to retrieve them at any time and for any eventuality.
The benefits of electronic signatures, as we’ve seen, are numerous: especially because, from what seems to be a simple signature, countless possibilities can arise, ranging from the opportunity to streamline and rationalize internal business processes, to the opportunity to rethink the relationship with customers, creating a successful customer experience.
From the implementation of electronic signatures, there are both immediate and more easily appreciable benefits, and positive effects that manifest themselves over time. Among the immediate benefits, we include a reduction in management costs, a streamlining of the timing of processes, and the possibility of obtaining signatures with full legal value in a few steps, even when there are more than one signatory.
But if we think of the electronic signature as an enabling element for digitizing onboarding processes, then we can appreciate the benefits that can be realized over time: a better relationship with customers and the ability to strengthen digital skills at a widespread level, among staff and users, opening the doors to new possibilities.