What are the types of digital signatures?

Screengrab of BlueInk website

AES, QES, SES explained

The ABCs of digital signatures might seem daunting at first. With acronyms like AES, QES, and SES, it might feel more like an alphabet soup than a way to facilitate the finalization of documents. 

But don’t let those unfamiliar-sounding acronyms get you down. The short of it is that they represent various types of digital signatures, which have emerged alongside technological advances. 

Right now, three prominent types of digital signatures exist: Advanced Electronic Signature (AES), Qualified Electronic Signature (QES), and Standard Electronic Signature (SES).

Person signs phone

Advanced Electronic Signatures (AES)

If we’re comparing signature types to movie genres, this is your action flick.

AES goes beyond basic electronic signatures by meeting specific criteria to ensure a higher level of security, authenticity, and legal validity.  They’re considered the best option for several reasons, particularly in contexts where a high level of security, legal recognition, and trustworthiness are paramount. 

Perhaps one of the most significant AES advantages is its legal recognition. These signatures are designed to meet specific legal requirements in various jurisdictions and are often considered equivalent to handwritten signatures. This legal standing makes AES a powerful tool for executing contracts, agreements, and other legally binding documents.

By the way, data integrity also stands out as a major benefit of this signature type. AES ensures the integrity of the signed data, meaning that any alteration to the document after the signature is applied will be detected. This is achieved through the use of hash functions that generate a unique identifier (hash value) for the document.

Plus, AES includes information about the signature creation process, such as the date and time of the signature. This information is essential for auditing and verification purposes.

In some scenarios, AES might employ additional security measures to protect the signing process. This can include the use of secure signature creation devices and cryptographic modules. These measures ensure that the private key used for signing is securely stored and cannot be compromised.

To enhance trust and legal validity, AES often requires the use of a qualified certificate issued by a trusted Certificate Authority (CA). This certificate confirms the identity of the signer and their right to use the AES, adding an extra layer of security.

Also notable is that these signatures are designed to have long-term validity, ensuring that the signature remains valid and verifiable even after an extended period. This is crucial for documents that need to be archived for compliance or legal reasons.

By combining advanced security measures with legal recognition, AES unlocks a world where electronic transactions are not just convenient but also trustworthy and legally binding. They serve not only as a technological upgrade, but as a strategic move toward a more secure and efficient future.

Person at keyboard

Qualified electronic signature (QES)

In keeping with our movie genre metaphor, QES is a tech film whose workings have been diluted enough for the general audience to understand.

QES has emerged as a key enabler of trustworthy digital transactions, providing a secure, legally recognized, and globally interoperable solution for businesses and individuals navigating the digital landscape.

It adheres to specific regulations and standards set by government authorities, making it a legally recognized form of electronic signature. In the European Union, for instance, QES is governed by the eIDAS Regulation, which establishes a comprehensive legal framework for electronic signatures.

Another defining QES is its use of a Qualified Certificate, HSMs and the use of other stringent security measures. The combination of these features ensures that the integrity of the signed document is maintained, instilling confidence in the authenticity of the signature. This also makes it resistant to forgery.

In certain scenarios, QES allows for remote signing, enabling signers to apply their signatures without being physically present. This flexibility is particularly valuable in situations where signers are geographically dispersed, offering convenience without compromising the security and legality of the signature.

Perhaps the most significant advantage of QES is its legal equivalence to traditional handwritten signatures. QES is recognized as a strong and secure form of electronic signature, making it suitable for contracts, agreements, and other documents that require a high level of legal standing.

These signatures are designed to have long-term validity. This ensures that the signature remains valid and verifiable even after an extended period, addressing the need for archiving important documents for compliance or legal reasons.

As well, QES aligns with international standards, fostering global interoperability. This means that Qualified Electronic Signatures are recognized not only within specific jurisdictions but also across borders, facilitating secure and legally binding transactions on a global scale.

The level of security offered by QES is something businesses have come to expect, with 85% of users naming improved security as one of the top benefits of adopting electronic signature technology.

Businesses can also use QES to streamline complex processes, reduce paperwork, and expedite decision-making by incorporating Qualified Electronic Signatures into their digital ecosystem.

woman signs phone screen during delivery

Standard electronic signatures (SES)

Last but not least, we have our trusty rainy day standby film that’s a safe choice mostly turned to for convenience.

SES is designed for simplicity and ease of use––often used for routine transactions, such as online agreements, where a higher level of security may not be required. Typically, this involves a basic level of authentication to confirm the identity of the signer. This can include methods such as email verification or username/password authentication.

Also known as a basic electronic signature, SES represents a more straightforward form of digital signature. This digital signature can be used for a range of applications, including e-commerce transactions, software agreements, and internal document approvals. It provides a convenient way to sign documents without the need for complex processes.

While SES may not have the same legal standing as QES, in many jurisdictions, standard electronic signatures are legally recognized and deemed as valid as traditional wet signatures. This recognition ensures that documents signed electronically hold legal weight.

They also typically come equipped with security features like encryption and authentication. These features help in ensuring the integrity and authenticity of the signed documents.

Such features are why SES is often considered a practical and efficient option. With convenience like this, it’s no wonder the digital signature market is expected to reach more than $43 billion by 2030.

Weighing the options

AES, QES, and SES each offer distinct features, ranging from basic authentication to the highest levels of security and legal recognition. As technology continues to evolve, digital signatures will play an increasingly vital role in ensuring the integrity and authenticity of electronic transactions.

Determining the most suitable type of digital signature depends on the specific requirements of the use case, including the level of security, legal recognition, and convenience needed. Different types of digital signatures cater to various needs, and each has its strengths.

Of course, signature types aren’t the only thing businesses have to consider when transitioning to digital signatures. They should also consider the platform provider facilitating the process.

With one study showing that 95% of organizations are already using or planning to adopt an electronic signature platform, those holding out could be missing out on benefits like cost, material, and time savings.

Providers like BlueInk offer a cost-efficient, highly secure, and signer-friendly platform that’s intuitive to use. Those interested in scheduling a demo to discover the benefits firsthand can do so online.


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