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One if by hand, and two if by key…ready to ride and spread the alarm

Documents have been recognized as authentic when they bear the mark of a signatory in the form of a stamp, wax seal, signature, etc.  Signed documents sent by modern fax machines have been recognized by courts as legitimate for nearly half a century, supported by laws enacted in many countries, including the United States.

The computer age shepherded in a new era of signatures, the Electronic Signatures Act went into effect enabling contracts that are signed digitally to carry the force of documents signed by hand.  Two years ago, the first international treaty was signed digitally by the leaders of Finland and Estonia.

We sign documents all the time, from simple credit card transactions to such complex transactions as purchasing a home.  While most people who sign documents never expect to end up in court over something they signed, those signed documents are going to come up for review if they relate to a case that goes to court.

Will it matter to a judge if those documents were signed by hand or with an electronic signature?  While the provenance of a document and the authenticity of a signature are important, the court will focus on the law, and the intent of the document by the parties who signed it.

So, does someone who signs a document digitally have the same intent as someone who signs by hand?

Perhaps not, according to new research conducted at the University of Virginia Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.  Assistant Professor Eileen Chou conducted eight different studies on groups of subjects who used handwritten and digital signatures to authenticate information they submitted to win a contest.   The findings of the research, which will be published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in November, present data showing that subjects who signed by hand were always honest about the information they submitted, while 18% of those who used digital signatures were dishonest about the information that they submitted.

When we asked Dr. Chou why she undertook this research, she explained, “As I was signing my own tax return (by hand, I may add) I started wondering how different signatures might alter people’s subsequent behaviors. I started thinking that while e-signatures may objectively perform the same function as signing by hand, they may not exert the same symbolic weight in subsequent decision making.”

Dr. Chou also believes that people who sign by hand, whether on paper, or by stylus on a mobile device, are imparting their personal touch on the document, while using a digital signature is less personal.   And when a process feels impersonal, people may be less honest.

Chou remarked, “We need to allow signers to exert greater sense of self – let it be an interface that facilitates signing via a stylus, or apps that mandate signers to personalize their signatures. This greater sense of self-presence would in turn exert greater constraints on subsequent behavior.”

Biscom has witnessed the practice of signing documents on tablets within its own customer base.   In fact, among the first users of the Biscom Mobile App were judges in courts in the United States.  The mobile app enables judges to use tablets to process search warrants. Judges who use Biscom Mobile Fax receive, annotate, sign, and fax search warrants to law enforcement agencies. By applying the hand of the judge to the document and sending the document via fax with a date and time stamp, the judge closes the door to any attempt by the defendant’s attorney to appeal the case on a question of whether an officer of the law conducted a search with an authentic warrant.

Would an email with a digital signature carry as much authority?

“I suspect that the e-signatures at the bottom of emails may be far weaker than other e-signatures that were included in the research. We typically set up those signature lines in advance and program them to appear automatically with each email. Therefore, people may not internalize those as signatures at all,” said Chou.

Learn more about Biscom Mobile Fax.