Digital Signature vs. Electronic Signature

James Lintzer |

In today’s digital world, we can do more things online than ever before. And that includes signing documents online. But as you use different e-signature services, you probably don’t think much of the terminology they use to describe online signatures. 

The two most common terms you’ll see when signing documents online are digital signatures and electronic signatures. And because no one’s likely ever explained to you the difference between these two terms, you might think they’re the same. But they’re not. 

In this post, we’ll go over the electronic signature vs digital signature, how they’re different, how they work, and when you should use one over the other. 

What are Digital and Electronic Signatures?

Ever since we can remember, personal signatures have played a huge role in human identity. We use them often to sign important documents.

Now, with online signatures, it’s becoming less common to print documents, sign them physically, scan, and send them back. What was once a standard practice in offices is now moving to a digital form. 

So, it makes sense that some people often come across the terms digital signatures and electronic signatures. They pretty much mean you’re paperlessly signing something, right? 

Not quite. Turns out, it goes a bit deeper than that.

A digital signature is a type of electronic signature. But an electronic signature isn’t automatically a digital signature.

A digital signature is more secure and tamper-proof, encrypting the document and permanently embedding the information within the document. So, if an individual tries to make changes to the document, then it’s automatically invalidated.

An electronic signature acts as a handwritten signature, but digitized. It’s verified with a signer’s identity, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an actual signature. An electronic signature can be an email, password, or PIN. It can also be a symbol, sound, or any process that represents the person’s intent to sign the document. 

But even though electronic signatures and digital signatures have their differences, they’re similar in an important way. Thanks to the E-Sign Act, they’re both legally binding, which means they have the same legal status as handwritten signatures. Under the E-Sign Act, a document or contract can be used as evidence in a court of law.

What Are the Main Features of a Digital Signature?

To understand what a digital signature is, think of it like a unique feature that’s in digital form, and is embedded into a document. To complete a digital signature, a signer must have a digital certificate so that they can be linked to the document. 

A digital certificate is a file that verifies the identity of a device or user. This involves the use of a cryptographic key, which is a string of characters within an encryption algorithm. Like a physical key, a cryptographic key locks (encrypts) data so that only the person who has the right key can unlock it. 

Certification authorities provide these digital certificates, which are similar to licenses and passports. These are organizations that validate identities and bind them to cryptographic key pairs with digital certificates.

Because of the steps needed to complete a digital signature, they’re more secure than an electronic signature. 

The purpose of encrypting a signature is to make sure it hasn’t been altered or tampered with. This is key to verifying the identity of the original person with the signature since a digital signature is unique to each individual signer.

To get a further understanding of what a digital signature is, let’s break down the process. 

  1. The first step to initiating a digital signature is an electronic signature solution following a protocol known as a PKI. 
  2. Using a mathematical algorithm, a PKI generates two keys for the user: a public key and a private key. Together, these two keys make a digital certificate, helping to validate the signer’s identity. 
  3. A person then electronically signs and completes a document, and a unique “fingerprint” (hash) is generated from a mathematical algorithm. 
  4. The signer’s private key then encrypts the hash. 
  5. The encrypted hash and the document certificate issued by a trusted certification authority are both attached to the digitally signed document. This completes the digital signature transaction.
  6. The signer’s public key is used to decrypt the document hash. This, in turn, validates their identity and verifies the digital signature. 
  7. As the document hash is decrypted, a new hash is calculated and matched with the original encrypted hash. The two must be the same in order to validate the signer. 

So, what does all this mean? Essentially, a digital signature has secure coding that links a signature to a signer’s identity and to the time the document was signed. This is what ensures the signer’s identity is valid and that the document hasn’t been tampered with.

What Are the Main Features of an Electronic Signature?

You can think of an electronic signature as any electronic symbol, process, or sound that’s associated with a record or contract where a signature is needed. 

One major feature that distinguishes electronic signatures from digital signatures is that electronic signatures can be verbal, a simple click of a box, or any electronically signed authorization.

Like a digital signature, an electronic signature can be used to verify the authenticity of a document. However, it can be difficult to verify an electronic signature. 

This is because electronic signatures aren’t encrypted with a digital certificate like digital signatures are. As a result, electronic signatures can’t show whether or not a document has been tampered with.

Yet, electronic signatures are popular because they’re easy to use, allowing users to sign documents online with the click of a button or by simply drawing their signature with a mouse.

Digital Signatures and Electronic Signatures in a Nutshell

To get a quick snapshot of the electronic vs. digital signature, take a look at the table below.

FeatureDIgital SignatureElectronic Signature
PurposeProtects the documentVerifies the document
Regulation and Third Parties’ participationAuthorized and regulated by certification authoritiesUsually not regulated
Use of Cryptographic algorithms Created using cryptographic algorithmsNo cryptographic algorithms are used, Less protected
VerificationCan be verified since the person obtaining the signature must prove their identity Can’t be verified
AdvantagesHigher level of authenticityEasy to use (but less evidential value)
The Intention of the SignerThe signer wants to ensure the security of the documentThe signer agrees to the terms and conditions of a contract
Visual MarkUsing a digital certificate, the “fingerprint” of the signature is embedded in the document signedConsidered to be a handwritten signature, but also a password, PIN code, or any other expression of consent

Which One Should You Use?

So now that you know the major differences between electronic and digital signatures, you might be wondering which one you should use to validate your documents. The answer? It depends on your unique situation.

In many cases, you won’t usually need a digital signature to validate a document. So, the document you want to sign or send for signing can simply use an electronic signature instead. So, in cases where you want to simply verify a document, an electronic signature works well.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to secure a document with more security features that protect the document, it may be best to go with a digital signature. 

Use jSign for Your Electronic Signature Needs

Need an electronic signature? Use jSign. With jSign, not only will you achieve protected, tamper-proof signatures, but you’ll also have access to a wide range of features. These include:

  • Real-time notifications: When a customer or client signs your document, you’ll get notified instantly via email.
  • Compliance: jSign is HIPAA compliant, which means it’s safe to use for medical documents. jSign is also compliant with all major eSignature laws, including UETA and ESIGN. 
  • Blockchain technology: Using blockchain technology, jSign tracks every stage of the online signature process, from document creation to signing. This helps safeguard the legality and authenticity of your documents, making sure they’re tamper-proof. 
  • Document management in the cloud: jSign features cloud storage integrations. So, you can connect your account with the storage platforms you already use. That way, you can quickly save signed documents to the cloud for easy reference. 
  • Geolocation: jSign utilizes geolocation, which captures the exact GPS location of a document eSignature. As a result, we’ll know exactly where the user signed the document, allowing us to further verify the validity of the signature.
  • Audit trails: In a convenient step-by-step audit log, you can review the details of a document’s history, including who accessed it, the actions they took, and timestamps.
  • Custom templates: With jSign, you can create reusable templates for your most commonly used documents. This allows you to save time and streamline workflows.
  • Certificate of completion: Every document signed with jSign comes with a concise, verifiable receipt to ensure a worry-free e-signing process.

More Than Just an Online Signature Platform

jSign goes above and beyond offering an easy way to sign documents online. You’ll have access to a ton of features that allow you to further streamline the e-signature process and ensure the security of your documents. 

Looking to try it out? Get your no-obligation 14-day free trial today. 

James Lintzer
Senior Marketing Manager

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