How to make e-signatures work amid high-stakes government hoops
By Pem Guerry
Despite the United States government’s best intent to introduce paperless workflows under the 1998 Government Paperwork Elimination Act, many local and state governments, as well as federal agencies, still rely on paper and ink to process loads of paperwork each year.
As a result, millions of taxpayer dollars continue to be spent on printing, mailing and storing paper documents, and citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow, outdated processes used to facilitate government transactions.
That’s why many federal, state and local government offices are turning to e-signatures. That one decision helps agencies transition from a paper-based system to a digital one, with countless documents that can be signed, sent and stored electronically. When the right e-signature solution is in place—one that meets and exceeds standards for compliance, data protection and legal defensibility—it can result in more secure, efficient and cost-effective government transactions. In fact, digital documents executed by e-signatures can serve as the evidence and approval needed for government transactions.
Legality and Security
As with most governmental processes—and the need for e-signatures to be secure and legally binding—certain regulations have been put in place to govern the use of e-signatures.
In 1999, the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) was developed to provide a legal framework for using e-signatures and digital records in business and government. The purpose of the model act was to ensure that electronic transactions were as enforceable as those made with paper and ink. And in 2000, the federal government followed suit with the passage of the ESIGN Act to permit the use of e-signatures in foreign and domestic commerce.
In addition to complying with these laws, the following security features should be in place in order to fully defend the evidence behind an e-signature:
Identity Authentication: The first step in protecting the integrity of a sensitive contract or other transaction is to verify the identity of the signer. There are different identity authentication methods available, ranging from simple email authentication—where the signer receives an email with a link to access the document—to highly secure Knowledge-Based Authentication (KBA), in which the signer must correctly answer a number of questions about information found in 30 years of public records before he can open the document. It’s a good idea to look for an e-signature solution that accommodates multi-factor authentication, a security process that requires at least two methods to verify a signer’s identity, such as email verification plus a code sent via text message to the signer’s mobile phone.
Tamper Evidence: Tamper-evident technology identifies any unauthorized changes to the document and alerts signers of potential fraud that could compromise the document’s validity.
Audit Trail: A comprehensive audit trail provides a complete, transparent history of the entire signing process—including the date and time a document was created, the signer’s consent, the IP address of the signer and more. This audit trail contains the necessary evidence to legally verify an e-signature if it is ever called into question.
With these technology offerings in place, government officials can be assured that e-signatures are not only be deemed as valid as wet signatures but they are also more secure.
Independence or Dependence
When it comes to the longevity, transparency and control of the signed document, it is important to understand the difference between the two main kinds of e-signatures: independent and dependent.
With Independent E-Signatures™, the evidence of the e-signature and its cryptographic information is permanently embedded into the signed document—meaning the proof of the document’s validity is automatically tied to the document and is fully accessible, online or offline, even years after it was signed. This is because the technology is based on international, published standards.
For dependent signatures, however, that is not the case. Dependent signatures rely on the e-signature vendor to provide the evidence of the signature and prove its authenticity. That proof can only be accessed through a link to the vendor’s server, so if that link were to ever break, if internet access were unavailable, or if the vendor was no longer servicing the client, then the evidence could no longer be accessed.
Because of those differences, independent e-signatures offer government offices and agencies the most freedom and control to process transactions electronically, including change of address forms and tax documents.
Ease of Use
There’s no denying the hassle that’s involved in completing paper-based government transactions. Citizens must drive to their government office, find parking and wait in lengthy lines just to fill out a piece of paper and sign it. Or, they must plan far in advance to have the paperwork mailed to them to sign and return. Then, workers typically need to enter that information into an online database, copy the paperwork, send it to another office and file it away. E-signatures take several of these steps out the process—making it easier and more efficient for both government workers and the citizens they serve.
Some e-signature solutions also have the flexibility to integrate into existing government platforms, making it easy to take advantage of the existing technology. Integration can be highly customizable—allowing you to set up mandatory information fields, include your own branding and more. By simply incorporating e-signatures into your existing processes, you can achieve greater efficiency and security while offering constituents improved customer service.
Bottom line: e-signatures enable government offices to extend their products and services to the public—enabling access from anywhere, at any time, while still meeting all regulations and other requirements. By using digital documents, citizens can complete forms remotely—even on mobile devices—and the number of times government workers must handle the information is significantly reduced—saving both parties a great deal of time and money.
Pem Guerry is Executive Vice President of SIGNiX, a cloud-based digital signature solutions company.