In a world submerged in the pandemic, some of the most felt ravages of social distancing were in the difficulty to perform tasks that previously seemed very easy or trivial. In the past, for example, signing and having documents signed was something simple that did not require more than a few seconds ... well, we are talking about the fact of stamping the signature as such, regardless of the lines or prerequisites, depending on the diligence that was carried out .

But the arrival of the pandemic brought to a halt many processes that required a signature to run its course. The impossibility of going to the bank or to the notary's office - in the case of institutions that still required the autograph in their own handwriting - left processes unfinished and people harmed. For this reason, the last year and a half has made evident the need to give new impetus to the digital signature and the electronic signature, with solutions put into practice more consistently.

Although electronic signatures have gained a lot of ground due to distancing conditions, the truth is that they have been in Colombia and the region for many years. And although we talk a lot about digital signatures, the truth is that there are still several misunderstandings that are worth clarifying. 

Electronic signature first

To begin with, an electronic signature is defined as a legal concept according to which a person accepts and validates the content of an electronic message through another electronic medium. In simple words, an electronic signature is a technical mechanism whose objective is to identify a person before a system. An electronic signature is generally equivalent to a handwritten signature. 

This is how Certicámara –one of the 7 certifying entities in Colombia– defines an electronic signature: «The electronic signature is defined in the Decree 2364 of 2012, such as codes, passwords, biometric data or private cryptographic keys that allow the identification of a person in relation to a data message ”. This, of course, as long as the data transfer method is reliable and appropriate according to the parameters of the Decree.

In colombia, the electronic signature was included in the legal framework since 1999 with Law 527, which has been reviewed and regulated by Decrees 2364 and 333 of 2012 and 2014, respectively. “In most Latin American countries there are laws that allow the use of electronic signatures for 8 or 10 years. In Brazil it can even be done since 2000 ", says Eduardo Jordao, responsible for Document Cloud for Adobe in Latin America.

Although in general when we talk about signature we think of our handwritten signature, the truth is that an electronic signature is not limited only to these types of symbols. According to Jordao, an electronic signature can be a code, a password, a biometric data or the IP address from which I connect, among many other elements.

And although electronic signatures are convenient for most people and companies, their main disadvantage is that they are not standardized or certified. In other words, each company has different identification methods and that, although it is legally valid for everyday transactions, its use does not presuppose elements such as integrity or certification from legal entities.

"Although every digital signature is an electronic signature, not every electronic signature is a digital signature", explains Certicámara.

And what is a digital signature?

Eduardo Jordao, Adobe Sign. Image: Adobe

In this order of ideas, a digital signature is a type of advanced electronic signature that integrates mechanisms that ensure the authenticity and legitimacy of the signature and the document. "The digital signature uses a public infrastructure system and where there is a need to use a digital certification that is endorsed by a certifying authority that the local government authorizes", explains Adobe's Jordao. 

Unlike other electronic signatures, digital signatures generally integrate elements such as end-to-end data encryption, exclusive control by the user, and the unique identification of the person signing.

According to the aforementioned Law 527, a digital signature is "A numerical value that is attached to a data message and, using a known mathematical procedure, linked to the initiator's key and to the text of the message." To this, Certicámara adds: «This signature implies the existence of a certificate issued by a Company accredited by the National Accreditation Agency of Colombia (Onac) ».

Digital signatures also include encryption and modification review elements. Once a document is signed, the digital signature stores the information and makes it possible to subsequently verify that the contents have not been modified. In the same way, when creating a digital signature, biometric and identification elements are required that are embedded in the signature and prevent identity theft.

The massive use of this type of firm has been increasing with public policies for digital transformation. It is thus, for example, that electronic invoices - from the first one that has been issued - are digitally signed, and in the same way, the documents of the single window for foreign trade (VUCE), among other processes. 

Cristian Mendieta, Legal Counsel of Olympia IT

Another element to take into account is that, thanks to the regulation around electronic invoicing in Colombia, All invoices issued digitally must also bear the establishment's digital signature. This is particularly important for online trading or transaction companies.    

In Colombia, entities such as Certicamara, Camerfirma Colombia y Viafirma They are endorsed by the government to issue and manage digital signatures. In the same way, systems such as Adobe Sign integrate electronic and digital signatures so that they can be used in companies and other legal elements in a much simpler way and without losing security. Here it should be clarified that Adobe can only issue electronic signatures, since for now it is not a legally recognized entity in Colombia. Its software, however, allows you to manage and manage both electronic and digital signatures.

Is it worth having multiple digital signatures?

Given its digital nature, it is entirely possible to have several certified digital signatures. However, since all digital signatures fulfill the same function, this does not have great advantages and also has several associated costs, so it is generally not worth having multiple signatures.

Mechanisms such as electronic invoicing and the acceleration of digital processes in the midst of the pandemic have also meant an increase in the number of digital signatures. "The National Accreditation Body of Colombia contains the data of the country's registered firms"Certicámara explained to us. «During 2020, Certicámara issued more than 55.000 digital signatures throughout the national territory to protect the identity of people.

The question of which one to use

Now, with both signatures delimited, the big question is which one to use. The truth here is that, although the electronic signature has limitations, it is more than enough for most transactions and daily needs. Receiving an order at home or authorizing a banking procedure via chat, for example, do not require the added security of a digital signature. 

An example that Eduardo Jordao gives is that many of the documents that we sign do not need to be authenticated in a notary's office to be valid. In these cases, the electronic signature offers the best balance between security and convenience for most users.

On the other hand, a digital signature is used when a company has specific requirements or when, for example, public contracts are signed. "Digital [is better] when there is a law that requires me to use it or when my business or my business rules require that I use the digital signature"says Jordao. An example of this are entities such as the Ministry of Finance or the Dian, which require digital signatures through Tokens or validators to access and establish amounts in the Colombian budget.

Legal attributes of digital signatures:

I do not repudiate: the issuer may not deny knowledge of a data message or the commitments acquired from it.
Authenticity: It allows to guarantee the identity of the sender of a message and / or its origin and to have full assurance that the sender of the message is really who they say they are.
Integrity: guarantees that the electronic data or information message has not been altered or modified.

Source: Certicámara for Impacto TIC

In summary, the electronic signature will suffice in most everyday cases, while the digital signature is used in work or transactional environments that require the highest security. Regardless of what it is, the implementation of this type of digital guarantees represents an important step towards the modernization of the region. “I believe that our region will grow in the use of electronic and digital signatures, –Explains Eduardo Jordao– and more and more people will have clearer concepts".

Main Image: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash