What are Digital Signatures?
Digital signatures are electronic stamps that can be used to identify the sender or the signer of a digital document. Think of digital signatures as the digital equivalent of the signature placed on a contract or a check. Digital signatures use public and private key pairs to ensure the authenticity of an electronic document. The creator of the document will have the private portion of a digital signature scheme which is encoded onto the document when it is signed. Then the recipient of the document would receive the public key of the digital signature scheme. This would allow the recipient of the document to know that the document was authentic and really did come from the sender.
Keeping with a paper document analogy, the purpose of a signature is to verify that the signer is the originator of the document. Sometimes documents require signatures in person to have a witness to the signature. The public key/private key pair allows electronic documents to be verified in much the same way.
A digital signature scheme generates a key pair, and the public key will only match the corresponding private key and vice versa. This ensures that the document which contains the private key is authentic and has not been changed since signing.
One thing to note is that a digital signature is altogether different from a digital certificate, which verifies content on a website with a third party. A digital signature is also very different from an email signature. While an email signature is a digital representation of the senders name and contact information, it does nothing to guarantee the origin of the message or document.
E-mail messages can be signed with digital signatures to verify their origin just like other electronic documents. Using digital signatures will allow recipients of these documents to feel comfortable in trusting that the document really came from the listed sender. This process can also help guarantee that the document has not been modified since being sent.
@Markerrag -- I do believe courts and businesses have wrestled with that problem for years. The short answer to your question is that I do believe that a lot of it depends on where the contract is enforced. If it is in a state that recognizes the legitimacy of digital signatures, then the contract is valid. If not, the contract will not be valid.
Expect all of that to change. There are a number of courts, for example, that don't even deal with paper filings anymore. They deal with digital documents exclusively and digital signatures are naturally viewed as legitimate in those courts. That is the way things have been heading for years, for better or worse.
One thing about digital signatures is that those are legally binding in some states. People have been wrestling with the authenticity of digital signatures for years and there are some states that recognize them as authentic and some that do not.
That is a big deal. In those states that allow digital signatures, contracts can be signed electronically and they bind all people who signed them to the terms of those contracts. That has created a lot of legal problems. What if there is a digital contract, for example, and it is signed by people in states that recognize the legality of those signatures and people in states that do not recognize the legality of those signatures? Is the contract binding and legal or not?
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