With the growing demand for solutions to replace paper-based processes, electronic signature solutions are becoming a must-have for all businesses. But not all electronic signatures are the same, and in this first of a two-part blog series, we’ll introduce you to digital signatures and digital seals for documents, and highlight the benefits of document sealing.

What are electronic signatures, digital signatures, and digital seals?

Electronic signatures

These are simply an electronic version of a signature, displayed on a computer. An electronic signature can be a scanned image of your signature; a mouse-, stylus-, or finger-drawn signature; or even the action of clicking on a specific button in a form or in a webpage.

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Digital signatures are a special type of electronic signature. They are not just a visual mark on a PDF document, but a cryptographic operation on the document, using PKI-based digital certificates that we call “document signing certificates” that contain the verified identity of a person.

Digital seals

From a technical perspective, a digital seal is the same as a digital signature, but instead of representing an individual person, it represents an organization (a “legal person”). A digital seal is the electronic version of an old-fashioned rubber stamp – but instead of purchasing a customized stamp and inkpad, you purchase a digital certificate that serves as a document signing certificate for your organization.

As an issuer of document signing certificates, Entrust verifies the organization’s existence and good standing, and includes this verified information into the document signing certificate.

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Why use digital seals on documents?

Sealing a document means using a digital certificate to sign a document. The seal displays verified company information (name, address, country, email address) and can therefore officially bind the document to the organization.

Digital seals have many benefits over ink-based company stamps on paper:

Document authenticity

The seal can confirm that the document is genuine and belongs to the organization represented in the seal, because such company information has been verified prior to issuing the certificate.

Document integrity

Digitally sealing a document requires the use of cryptographic algorithms. This doesn’t mean your document will be encrypted, but rather that the content will be locked. The seal acts like a transparent shrink-wrap around it – you can read it, but you can’t edit it without breaking the seal.

Non-repudiation of the document

Another great feature based on cryptography is that only the owner of the certificate can sign, therefore all signatures based on the certificate can be considered genuine and can’t be repudiated. To go even further, seals can be timestamped to show the signature’s exact date and time. Timestamps coming from third parties such as Entrust’s public timestamping service are publicly trusted.

Legal value

In most countries, digital signatures and seals have legal value, meaning the identity/company verification process for the digital certificate, combined with the cryptographic features of a signature/seal and the addition of a public timestamp make them legally acceptable in the majority of cases. It’s always best to check local regulations to know the requirements of a legally acceptable signature/seal.

Which documents can benefit from digital seals?

Any document can be digitally sealed, as long as it’s in a globally accepted format such as PDF. All you need is a document signing certificate from a public certification authority like Entrust and a PDF tool such as Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of documents for which digital seals can bring a lot of benefits:

  • Invoices
  • Purchase orders
  • Diplomas and certificates
  • Contracts
  • Service agreements
  • 税務書類
  • HR documents
  • Marketing assets

Once sealed, your documents will not only be tamper-proof, but they’ll also indicate your verified organization name, and show the exact date and time the seal was applied – ideal for contracts, quotes, invoices and purchase orders, which usually have associated payment deadlines.