Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Untrustworthy electronic signatures

Eileen Y. Chou, of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, published a study on how people perceive electronic signatures over traditional handwritten signatures.  It appears in the December 2, 2014 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.

We find the study fascinating because the usage of e-signatures has exploded in the past decade, indicating growing acceptance and preference, while the study suggests such e-signatures are viewed by some as less trustworthy.  No doubt there is both a generational as well as a business-versus-consumer difference in perception.  And of course the breadth of implementations of e-signatures truly does mean that some are indeed more trustworthy than others.  Some suggest checkboxes are valid e-signatures, but we wouldn't bet that the courts will side with you if that's all you can present as evidence of a signed contract.  We know there are even e-signature vendors that provide no credible proof, such as via digital signatures, that electronic documents or their signatures are valid.

Then again, this is true for wet signatures, too.  Most people just don't think about them.  For example, signatures on checks and credit card receipts are effectively never checked for validity.  The cost of comparing handwritten signatures is just too high and few can do it well.  Fewer still have a sample wet signature on file to compare against, and of course handwritten signatures change over the course of time, the type of writing implement used, whether it's cold or hot or damp, etc.  As a leftie, far too many of my signatures ended up smeared.

Wet signatures also come with built-in delays and expenses for printing and delivery, and all returned documents have to be checked to ensure nothing has been altered since it was originally provided.  Paper faxes are often impossible to read, especially when receiving a fax of your fax, and few users have a fax machine handy these days as they require a both a device and a landline.  In the days of cell phones and Internet browsers and email, paper is not as easily processed as it once was.

The study discusses the idea of "presence," indicating that most felt a handwritten signature indicated greater presence of the signer.  Of course, there is no basis for this belief, it's just something most do not take time to consider.  Sure, if you get a notarized signature in which both parties present valid identification and the signing takes place in front of each other, there is substantial presence involved. Naturally, it's precisely this sort of presence -- including its hassle and expense -- that most drives the adoption of e-signatures.  Every time a paper letter arrives in my mailbox for my son who is now at the university, it is clear how much trouble paper is, presence is, and of course the privacy issues it raises.  Did I open the letter?  Toss it?  Did it arrive in my neighbor's box yet again so they had possession before me?  Did they toss it or tell me "they didn't notice" it was misdelivered until after they opened it?  Am I traveling?  Even if I'm home, must I wait several days to receive it?  Will I have to drive to the post office to return it should it require a response?

If a signed paper document arrives by mail or fax, the recipient has no idea about any presence involved in the signing.  In fact, we all know from daily experience that even legitimately signed signed documents are often actually signed by spouses and admins.  Most "handwritten" signatures you see were created by a machine, such as those on business checks or mass mailings.  Even the President uses a machine to sign most documents sent out.

The study abstract does not discuss how the signed documents were presented to subjects for their gut reaction.  Were e-signed documents presented on paper or electronically?  Were paper documents presented on paper or electronically (most businesses end up scanning paper records for long term storage and to provide availability anyway)?  How did the perceived validity change for those with familiarity and general acceptance of technology?

Presumably, there was no education provided to participants about handwritten signatures or electronic signatures before undergoing the experiment, so we are left with gut feelings that rarely are correct.  After all, validating a handwritten signature based on whether it looks right is the very basis for most scams because looks are deceiving.  All phishing attacks work because everything looks correct.  Signature verification is more art than science even for those few who have a previous sample signature on file to compare against?

Do subjects know that paper documents created with high resolution scanners and printers make the creation of fraudulent documents easier than ever before?  Does Ms. Chou know that if she writes a letter of recommendation once, the holder can change the letter or make it so she's written similar letters for anybody else using simple copy/paste operations on a computer? Or simply lift her signature image and put on any other document. Or that a forged paper document could just be created with a forged ink signature because nobody else knows what Ms. Chou's signature looks like.

Was there any discussion about the powers of a digital signature to detect any change to a document after it was signed? Or that e-signatures, when done correctly, come with accurate timestamps, IP address tracking, etc., and that all parties can have an immediate copy for their records?  For example, with Open eSignForms, we digitally sign the document and embedded data at each step of the process, so we can show you how it looked as it was originally sent out, and how it looked as each signature was applied.  And of course many documents with signatures have more data to be provided (good old forms!), and trying to read handwritten data is often tricky and generally requires re-keying to get that data into business applications. Try adding data validation to a paper form!

Are the results of this study any different than those about paper correspondence being more meaningful to some than email?  Some prefer paper books to ebooks too, and some prefer dirty newsprint to online reading.  How about ATMs versus cashing checks?  How about cash over cards and smart phones?  Every new innovation goes through a transition period as people adjust. E-signatures are very new to most people, so the fact that some hold to the idea that the old ways are better is fully expected.

Heck, even autographs are giving way to selfies with the celebrity.

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