The Legality of Digital Signatures in South Africa
The first “primitive” form of digital signatures was developed in 1977 by Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Len Adleman, who invented the RSA Algorithm. This technology was used for the first digital signatures.
With the evolution of technology in the last two decades, digital signatures have grown in popularity and developed broader applicability.
Click-to-sign electronic signatures
These provide almost no assurance or verification and are mainly used for basic activities like signing off on a received package from a courier service.
Basic or standard electronic signatures (SES)
An SES provides a mid-level of assurance and verification, as they incorporate cryptographic digital certification, user confirmation, and user action, with the use of an OTP, sent to the signer’s cell phone.
These signatures can be used for business purposes, like HR documents, agreements between businesses, consumer agreements, and short-term real estate documents. However, their legality is still questionable, as there is room for fraud or counterfeit.
Advanced digital signatures
Advanced Digital Signatures (also known as qualified digital signatures) provide the highest level of legal assurance and verification.
These signatures use the same cryptographic digital certification as basic electronic signatures, but they also make use of biometric verification, assigning the signee a unique signing key, and identity verification through a qualified Certificate Authority. These all of which include an uncompromisable time-stamp for long-term certification.
Signatures of this level can generally be used for some legally binding documents, recognised in a court of law.
With the growing popularity of electronic and digital signatures, their cost, time and planet-saving capabilities, and the development of new technologies, one can be assured that digital signatures will most likely eventually become the only acceptable means of signing documents.
Technologies are being created to ensure 100% assurance and identity verification remotely. This combined with the tracking, data integrity, and storage mechanisms already in place for electronic forms and digital signatures, means that digital signatures will continue to provide more security, validity and be far more legally binding than the archaic handwritten pen-to-paper signatures we have used for so long.