Digital signature vs. electronic:
Is there a difference?

There definitely is! And understanding the difference is key to asking informed questions about the legal validity of agreements signed electronically, including the integrity of your documents.

It’s easy to confuse the two terms

It’s very easy to confuse digital signature and electronic signature. First, the two terms are often used interchangeably. And to add to the confusion, some languages don’t make a distinction. 

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the differences between digital and electronic signatures to help clear things up. You’ll learn the key features of each term, examples of what they encompass and how they can be applied. Above all, you’ll learn how to ask esign providers to be specific regarding what their services include.

What is a digital signature?

A digital signature is a method for ensuring the integrity of digital documents. It’s like a fingerprint that is unique to that document. As with our own human fingerprints, it’s impossible for any other document to have that same digital signature.

What is an electronic signature?

An electronic signature is a method for entering into a legal agreement in a digital environment. Think of it as the digital equivalent of signing your name on a paper document, such as a sales contract. A person signing an agreement creates an electronic signature when they sign an electronic document by clicking a button or drawing their signature with a mouse, touchpad or other input device.

An electronic signature according to the eIDAS regulation is defined as “data in electronic form which is attached to or logically associated with other data in electronic form and which is used by the signatory to sign”.

In US federal regulation, an electronic signature is defined as: “an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to or logically associated with a record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.” (as stated in the eSign act of June 2000.)

Types of electronic signatures and agreements

There are various methods for expressing agreement, consent and acknowledgment in a digital environment, including:

  • clicking a button to agree to on-screen text, such as terms and conditions
  • clicking and/or drawing your signature to sign an electronic document
  • making a sound or video recording of a verbal acknowledgment
  • authenticating your identity using a means of electronic identification (eID)

Not all of these will qualify as an electronic signature, and which method to use depends on the situation. Because the legal effect of these methods can vary greatly, factors such as cost of implementation, ease of use (customer experience), legislation, company policies and assessed business risk usually determine which one to use in a given situation. 

Even in the category of electronic signature, there are different levels, and which level is appropriate for a given situation will depend on the same factors mentioned above. These levels are explained further in the Scrive Trust Center.

What makes an electronic signature legally binding?

To conform with global contract law, a signature, whether electronic or on paper, must fulfil three key requirements. If someone challenges the validity of a signed document, you must be able to show evidence of: the signing party’s intent to enter into a binding agreement, the signing party’s identity and the document’s integrity, i.e., that it has not been altered.

This third requirement, document integrity, is why you need a digital signature.

 

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What is a digital signature?

A digital signature is a method for ensuring the integrity of digital documents. It’s like a fingerprint that is unique to that document. As with our own human fingerprints, it’s impossible for any other document to have that same digital signature.

When a document is sealed with a digital signature, you can use this seal as evidence that: (1) no one has altered the original document, and (2) the document you’re presenting isn’t a forgery.

What a digital signature is not:

  • a method for encrypting documents
  • a method for securely archiving your documents

The differences at a glance

Whereas an electronic signature is evidence of the document signatory’s agreement, a digital signature is evidence that the document itself is authentic. They work in tandem, and both are needed to make a digital agreement verifiable and legally enforceable.

Electronic signature
Digital signature

Is like signing your name on a paper agreement

Is like applying an embossed seal to a paper document

Is created by a person when they click a button or draw their signature

Is created by software

Connects the person to the document

Uniquely identifies the document

Indicates the signer’s intent to enter into a binding agreement

Verifies the document has not been altered or forged

Must include evidence of intent, identity and integrity

Is the method for ensuring integrity

Electronic signature

Is like signing your name on a paper agreement

Is created by a person when they click a button or draw their signature

Connects the person to the document

Indicates the signer’s intent to enter into a binding agreement

Must include evidence of intent, identity and integrity

Digital signature

Is like applying an embossed seal to a paper document

Is created by software

Uniquely identifies the document

Verifies the document has not been altered or forged

Is the method for ensuring integrity

Scrive’s offering

Scrive offers electronic signatures that the signing party creates when they click a button or draw their signature to agree to the content of an agreement presented in a digital format. 

Our signature creation platform collects all the evidence required for a legally-binding agreement: intent, identity and integrity. This evidence is saved with the signed document, and the final package is sealed with a digital signature, the method for ensuring integrity.

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