Tag Archives: paper

Digital Signatures and the fallacy of Good, Cheap and Fast.

It is common to hear you can choose two of the following, “Good”, “Cheap” or “Fast”. While there is clearly some truth to this, it is not an absolute truth.

This is especially true in the context of Digital Signatures in the United States where the law allows for parties to agree to rely on virtually any mechanism to capture an agreement.  The rationale behind this is that in the event of a dispute it is the claimant in the dispute who will need to prove consent, as such, it is the parties of an agreement who must assume the burden of choice.

This introduces economic incentives to the decision-making process, specifically, it encourages you to consider which digital signature solution to apply to a given problem. This is an inherently good goal because over-specification in regulations can create market forces that result in the wrong solution being applied to a given business problem.

This flexibility also has downsides, specifically when people look to build a product to enable digital signatures this flexibility diminishes the economic incentives for them to build the most secure solution. Instead, their goal becomes to build the solution they think they can sell with minimal investment.

This, in theory, should still encourage providers to build a strong solution in that, if documents signed with their product end up being thrown out in court their business will ultimately fail. The problem with this motivation is that it can take a decade or more for this to become a concern that can hurt their business. As such, they double down on the creation of a solution that can be taken to market quickly.

It is easy to see this play out in the US Digital Signature market, the large majority of solutions do little more than produce an image that looks like “a signature” and then embeds it into a document. In the European Union, they call this a “Simple Signature”. To produce a fraudulent signature with such a scheme you typically need to select the signature with your mouse, right-click, select copy and then paste the image into the fraudulent document. These solutions are typically very easy to use and cheap to build but is clearly not a technique you would want to use on an agreement that might need to be enforced in a court of law.

Some solutions try to make these Simple Signatures stronger by taking a hash of the document with the signature in it and placing it in a database on their servers. This is done so that in the event of a dispute you can ask the service provider to go to court with you and act as an expert, stand by your side, and say “the hash is the same one we saw when they signed the document”. This is better than the pure image approach but not by much. This is true if for no other reason than they are unlikely to assign legal support to every contract dispute that happens involving contracts signed with their service. Additionally, if the legitimacy of the contract is put into question and the site has had any security incidents at all since it was signed, the claims they make would be questionable at best.

Other Simple Signature solutions try to mitigate these issues by applying a cryptographic notarization to the document after the basic Simple Signature was applied. This adds the concept of a trustworthy notarization of when the document was signed and to some degree, makes the document capable of standing on its own. Now if the original electronic document was produced with standards-based software anyone can confirm it has not been tampered with since it was produced. This helps you reduce the legal exposure relating to a compromise of the signing service which certainly helps with the enforceability but it does not eliminate this risk. This is because a slightly more difficult compromise of the service could still result in a bad actor producing a false document.

The next step up in enforceability is generally referred to as an “Advanced Signature”. These Advanced Signatures almost always start as a “Simple Signature” but they will also include signing the document with a cryptographic key under the sole control of the signer. This provides assurances that it was the user, and not the digital signature service, that signed the document.

Practically speaking the final step in enforceability when it comes to digital signatures is referred to as a “Qualified Signature”. This builds on the previous two types and of signatures and adds in two requirements. The first of which is that the key to being managed on a specialized cryptographic appliance such as a smart card or hardware security module. The rationale for this is that signing keys are typically long-lived and keys stored in software are exposed to theft. This is important because if an attacker steals one of these keys then they can produce fraudulently signed documents with it. The second requirement is that a the legal identity of the signer needs to be verified and included in the digital signature. This is in contrast to the other types of signatures which in essence only require the signer to be uniquely identified, in other words, something as basic as an email ping could be considered sufficient.

What has happened in the US is that since the law does not require anything stronger than a Simple Signature outside of areas like healthcare and finance where there are either regulatory requirements or business risks that justify a better solution we see only the Simple Signatures in use.

The vendors of these products would probably tell you they don’t do these more enforceable solutions because of you have to choose two of the following Fast, Cheap or Secure.

In the European Union, you have had the opposite problem, the economic incentives of the vendors and the associated regulatory frameworks have sent their market down the path of trying to apply Qualified Signatures to nearly all transactions. This reality has hampered the adoption of electronic signatures limiting their use to the highest value transactions due to the associated onboarding and use time friction this approach typically entails.

I believe this is an example of market failure and that it is possible to build a solution that scales across a businesses enforceability needs. One of the key reasons the market has not yet delivered such a solution is that the economic incentives for the vendors are not well aligned with those of their customers.

Tides are changing in both the US and in the European Union and I believe we will see a convergence of the best of both solutions in the coming years but as of yet, such a solution has not found its way to the market.

Paper in a Digital World

Paper processes are a normal part of person to person exchanges, and like the written signature, we can be sure their use will not disappear overnight. This means it is even more important that we evolve the relationship between our physical and digital experiences that involve paper so they can work more fluidly.

Sometimes these exchanges begin as a physical interaction and transition to the digital but almost always, it is the digital embodiment of that transaction that is relied upon once the exchange ends. This is because these digital representations make it possible to instantly access the data contained in them and correlate it to other data enabling quicker and better decisions.

This is particularly important to keep in mind when we consider that paper based workflows are, broadly speaking, privacy preserving workflows. Only those people who have physical access to the associated documents have knowledge of their contents. Their physical nature also makes it possible for those who have possession to freely review these documents with others. This is not true of most digital workflows where the records are commonly stored in clear text in some database or cloud storage service.

There is also a long history of effective independent forensic analysis of paper documents and written signatures. While there are certainly many things that can be determined from forensic analysis of a digital document, attributing it to an individual, or detecting that it has been tampered with is often next to impossible.

It is possible to provide these same properties with digital documents and do so with even greater assurances with the intelligent application of cryptographic based signatures and encryption.  Despite this, these approaches are seldom used, the primary reason given by vendors is providing them requires investment in complex key management solutions and often results in sub optimal user experiences.

Those that do offer cryptographic signatures seldom use them to represent the signer’s intent and instead rely on digital facsimiles of the signer’s physical signature. They then notarize that they saw a given ip address, at a given time attach that facsimile of a signature. This technically exceeds the legal minimum requirements in the United States but fails to meet the minimum expectations most other countries mandate for electronic signatures.

Even once you design a solution that achieves all these properties you are not done providing an equivalent digital alternative. These person-to-person exchanges often require both paper and digital artifacts and as a result you will need to be able to link the two together. This is not too dissimilar than how an “original” contract with its ink signature is often treated as the authentic “source of truth”. In these hybrid digital and physical interactions one party may have processes or compliance requirements that require a paper representation (and something that approximates a physical signature) of the interaction. while the others involved may prefer the convenience of the digital representation.

So what are the things you minimally need to look for in a digital signature solution beyond usability if it is to deliver the same or better properties as existing paper based solution?

  • Each signer:
    • cryptographically signs the document;
    • attaches a facsimile of their physical signature to the document.
  • The final document:
    • is cryptographically notarized with metadata about the signing;
    • includes a timestamp and the cryptographic metadata needed to verify the signature long into the future;
    • can be encrypted end-to-end ensuring only the parties associated with of the document can read it;
    • is assigned a unique identifier that is placed plainly in the document so when it printed its digital embodiment can be easily found;
    • includes a log of activities that took place during the signing process;
    • is archived so it can easily be retrieve later in case of a dispute.
  • The document and signature formats used are based on broadly accepted standards so:
    • it will be readable and verifiable far into the future;
    • it can be read and verified in third-party applications;
    • enforcing the agreement does not require participation of the solution provider in case of dispute.
  • A free web based reader is available that:
    • does not require registering to read the document;
    • enables participants to share the documents with others;
    • can validate the signatures without the need for plug-ins or desktop applications;
    • works as well on mobile and tablet as it does on the desktop;
    • can be easily and freely integrated into your own applications.
  • An API that makes it possible to integrate into your own applications the signing of:
    • documents;
    • web forms.

With these bases covered you have something that should be able to withhold the test-of-time just as paper processes have been able to do.