The Legality of Digital Signatures in South Africa

The legality of digital signatures in South Africa can be discussed by stating that they may seem like new technology, but they have been around since the 1970s! 

Digital signatures are legally binding under South Africa’s ECT Act, which firmly establishes their legal status.

The Legality of Digital Signatures in South Africa

The Past

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.

The Present

There are currently three different levels of digital signatures recognised as valid:

  • Click-to-Sign Electronic Signatures,
  • Basic/Standard Electronic Signatures,  and
  • Advanced/Qualified Digital Signatures.

Each level comes with increasing levels of assurance and verification.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Types of electronic signature

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click-to-sign electronic signatures

Typically used as a way to sign off on a package received by a courier service, they provide little assurance or verification.

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.


The Future

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.

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