Once the need for a signature has been established, there are several methods that can be employed for signing electronic forms. The validity of the signature is all about the process used to collect the signature.
User authentication is a critical element of any reliable electronic signature solution. Digital certificates, user ID and password and biometrics are just some of the options available. Determining the best approach can be challenging, especially when processes have varying authentication requirements. However, there are two elements that must always be satisfied: authentication of the user and validation of intent to agree to the conditions attested to.
One way to talk about this is to discuss the need to mitigate authentication risk ("wasn't me”). In discussing authentication risk, there are two types of authentication: active and passive. In an active authentication scenario, the identity of the user is assessed before the transaction begins. This is a solution where the user presents a password, a certificate, a voice biometric, etc. to gain access to a process. A record of this login event is stored as evidence to mitigate the risk where a person claims that they didn't take part in the process. In a passive authentication scenario, evidence is collected to support authentication, but the process doesn't require that the user pass an authentication challenge on the front end. If one thinks about it, this is how paper works. In a paper transaction, you rarely try to authenticate whether the signature is valid when you get the form in the mailroom. With eForms, however, if you accept the premise that the transaction eForm has a mark on the completed forms, you know that in the event of a dispute you have evidence to support an authentication challenge—you have a biological mark tied to a particular document. In a voice signature, you collect evidence that you can bring forward in the event of a dispute, without the need to authenticate the user actively on the front end.
"User authentication is a critical element of any reliable electronic signature solution. There are two elements that must always be satisfied: authentication of the user and validation of intent to agree to the conditions attested to."
Another important consideration is cost. When you look at costs, you must consider the cost of both creating the electronically signed document and the cost of storing it. In active authentication solutions, the storage issue becomes paramount because you are essentially storing a "log" of activity in order to prove that a particular person logged on at a particular point in time and completed an action. To get a "log" admitted into a court proceeding, you must show that the record was reliable, which means you have to show your logs are maintained and have not be subjected to tampering. This often involves being able to demonstrate both personnel and technology safeguards, which can cost money.
Of the methods used to electronically sign forms, the most common is a login and password method. In this method, the organization registers individuals in advance and assigns credentials. When the user tabs or clicks into the signature field, they are prompted to enter a password, which is then validated. This password can be user-defined on the spot, or it can be tied to a login method such as the active directory.
Password signing is commonly used inside the firewall in low-risk, low potential loss situations. It is not considered to be very secure, as some people share their password, or a work station left unattended can be accessed by any passer-by. In addition, the organization must maintain the password system, including providing for password changes and forgotten passwords.
When using a password signing ceremony, the act of entering a validated password can cause an image of the signature or other mark to be inserted into the signature field. If routed for additional approvals, the workflow must provide for the ability to un-sign the form in reverse order that it was signed. Each act of signing needs to lock the fields attested to and prevent any further alterations. Un-signing the form unlocks the relevant fields for editing.
Most modern forms design software provides for signature fields that can be easily inserted onto the form container. Such fields generally contain standard functionality as described above.
Fortunately, forms design software also provides for other, more secure signing methods. In my next blog, I will discuss additional signing methods that are available to forms designers, with advantages and disadvantages of each.