Electronic signature vs electronic seal: main features and differences

EU rules (eIDAS Regulation) on electronic signatures, electronic seals, time stamps, electronic delivery service and website authentication, as well as electronic documents apply directly across the 28 Member States, more specifically from July 2016, people, businesses and public administrations are able to carry out convenient, secure and legally valid electronic transactions across borders. The European Union instigated the eIDAS Regulation as a way of building trust in the online environment. It featured legislation that standardises the correct use of electronic identity and identification.

Electronic signatures and electronic seals are both legal digital service regulated in eIDAS directive that are designated to help online transactions.
Technically speaking, an electronic seal relies on the same mechanisms as an electronic signature.
But, when creating a document, how do you know which one to use between an electronic seal and an electronic signature?
Electronic seals and electronic signatures have striking similarities but there are also a number of differences between the two items and this could unfortunately lead to confusion, so let’s have a closer look to both.

What is an Electronic Signature

In basic terms, an electronic signature is just a signature in electronic form. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a signature that you can use electronically, either by applying a preformatted signature into a document, or using a third-party tool that allows you to sign something from your computer, in fact electronic signatures can take several forms: the individual’s name typed out, an uploaded image of the person’s cursive signature, or a signature drawn on the screen of a smartphone or tablet.

In the European Union, EU Regulation No. 910/2014, electronic signatures can be used to replace traditional or wet signatures for many uses around the globe and have the same legal effect as handwritten signatures for most types of documents. An electronic signature is defined as “data in electronic form which is attached to or logically associated with other data in electronic form and which is used by the signatory to sign” (eIDAS Article 3).
An electronic signature is an electronic indication of a person’s intent to agree to the content of a document or a set of data to which the signature relates, it is a legal concept capturing the signatory’s intent to be bound by the terms of the signed document. An electronic signature is essentially a process that uses computers to authenticate the signatory and certify the integrity of the document it self.

The eIDAS Regulation defines three levels of electronic signature: simple electronic signature, advanced electronic signature and qualified electronic signature. The requirements of each level build on the requirements of the level below it, such that a qualified electronic signature meets the most requirements and a simple electronic signature the least.

Electronic signature are legally valid and widely accepted for agreements in any industry, they cut time in documents procedures by 40% or more and reduce paper stock.

What is an Electronic Seal

Electronic Seal is a legal concept introduced in eIDAS Regulation to enable legal entities to sign electronically documents. An electronic seal is data in electronic form, which is attached to or associated with other data in electronic form to ensure the latter’s origin and integrity.
In this purpose, electronic seals might serve as evidence that an electronic document was issued by a legal person, ensuring certainty of the document’s origin and integrity.
The eIDAS Regulation describes an electronic seal as “data in electronic form, which is attached to or logically associated with other data in electronic form to ensure the latter’s origin and integrity.”

You can see an electronic seal as being the digital equivalent of a stamp placed on a paper document to confirm its origin, authenticity and integrity. The electronic seal can only be associated with a legal person or entity, rather than a natural person. Using an electronic seal means that your organisation can prove the integrity of the information in a document without having to have one specific individual, such as the CEO, sign manually. This speeds up your workflow and saves the valuable time of the individual in question.Using an electronic seal, companies can sign high volumes of data such as electronic invoices generated through an accounting system, contract templates to be shared with multiple actors, pay checks etc. There are two forms of electronic seal described in eIDAS: Advanced Electronic Seals and Qualified Electronic Seals.

Differences and similarities

An electronic seal is technically the same as an electronic signature. The difference is that an electronic signature can be associated to both a natural person or legal person/entity, whereas a seal is associated only to a legal person/entity and unlike an electronic signature, an electronic seal does not imply a commitment or engagement from the signatory over the content of the document, apart from guaranteeing its data authenticity and origin.

The seal key must be under the sole control of the signatory, it’s created manually by a natural person entitled to act on behalf of a legal entity issuing the seal, or using automation by information systems while the signing key must be under control of the process creating the seal, on the action of the signatory who verifies the content of the document before creating the signature using the relevant hardware needed for the type of electronic signature.

The intention of the electronic seal is to guarantee the authenticity, integrity and origin of the data within a document while the purpose of the electronic signature is to show a commitment to or the engagement with the content within the document and to verify the identity of the signer.

The electronic seal shares the same legal acceptance and recognition in all European Union’s (EU) member states as the electronic signature. This means that it cannot be denied as evidence in case of litigation solely on the grounds that it is an electronic form or that it does not meet the requirements for qualified electronic seals (Section 5, Article 35 of eIDAS).

Particularly the qualified electronic seal is the only one enjoying the highest level of legal recognition and acceptance. Compared to an electronic signature, an electronic seal distinguishes itself by facilitating automation. Unlike electronic signature, where direct actions of the signer are required, electronic seals can be applied both manually and automatically, simplifying many of companies’ processes.

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