Lately, there has been a lot of talking around the electronic signature and its role in the digital processes. Electronic signature and trust services market are quickly consolidating in Europe. Their use is growing through different industries across all countries, but there are other digital services that can help companies manage and secure their documents, such as the Electronic Seal.
An electronic sealed document with a qualified electronic seal has the same legal effect as an original document sealed with a regular company’s seal and it’s acknowledged in the entire European Economic Area.
So, what exactly is an electronic seal and how it differs form an electronic signature? In this article, we will put the spotlight on this digital tool and tell you five things you need to know.
- What is an Electronic Seal. Both legal and digital concept
As it is stated on the Wikipedia dedicated page “an electronic seal is a piece of data attached to an electronic document or other data, which ensures data origin and integrity. The term is used in the EU Regulation No 910/2014 (eIDAS Regulation) for electronic transactions within the internal European market”.
The electronic seal is both a legal and a digital service regulated in eIDAS directive.
The eIDAS Regulation was designed to build trust and protect authenticity on the online world. It features legislation that standardises the correct use of electronic identification including electronic timestamps, certificate services for website authentication, electronic documents as well as electronic seals and electronic signatures across all EU member states.
Article 3 of the Regulation provides the legal definition: ‘An electronic seal refers to any data in an electronic form, which is attached to or logically associated with other data in electronic form, to ensure the latter’s origin and integrity’.
Concretely, it secures the content of the documents and allows to detect any later modifications within the document. It also provides reliable information and court-admissible evidence about the company which issued the seal, its legal representative and possible digital certificates linked to the electronic seal.
It is, thus, a digital service that enables a legal entity to electronically sign documents. Using an electronic seal means that your organisation can prove the integrity of the information in a document without requiring one specific individual, such as the CEO, to sign manually. This speeds up the workflow and saves time for the processes.
- Electronic Seal and Electronic Signature: differences and similarities. Legal entities and Natural persons
Conceptually similar to electronic signatures and usually technically realized as digital signatures, electronic seals serve as evidence that an electronic document was issued by a specific legal entity whether it is a large enterprise, small company, public institution or non-profit organization.
An electronic seal shares some common traits with an electronic signature as defined in eIDAS. They both rely on similar technology and legal requirements as:
- Both uniquely linked to the creator of the seal;
- Capable of identifying the creator of the seal;
- It is created using electronic seal creation data that the creator of the seal can, with a high level of confidence under its control, use for electronic seal creation;
- It is linked to the data to which it relates in such a way that any subsequent change in the data is detectable.
Despite sharing numerous traits with 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 the companies’ processes.
Using an electronic seal, companies can sign high volumes of data such as e-invoices generated through an accounting system, contract templates to be shared with multiple actors, paychecks etc.
- How to create an Electronic Seal. Online operators
In order to create and start using an electronic seal you need a qualified certificate that is issued only by a qualified trusted service provider, a creation device such as USB or HSM and a software that is capable to work with electronic seal in USB or have an integration with the chosen HSM, the software also needs to know how to add a seal on a chosen document type (ADoc, PDF, ASiC-E, etc.) or know how to format them.
In general, many of the operators that provide digital signature creation services also allow you to create electronic seals, it doesn’t matter which country or institution’s seal you buy, it will be valid in the entire EU. Alternatively, some online operators provide the complete package service so you don’t have to worry about additional means.
- Different Kinds of Electronic Seals. Advanced and Qualified electronic seals
According to the eIDAS regulation, there are two types of electronic seal:
- Advanced electronic seal (AdESeal) – which requires security features that ensure that it is uniquely connected to the singer, is able to identify the singer entity and is linked to the data in such a way that any subsequent data modification is detectable.
- Qualified electronic seal (QESeal) – which is an advanced electronic seal that provides an additional level of security on the identity of the seal creator and a greater protection and level of security on the creation of the seal
More specifically a Qualified Electronic Seal can be issued in either a USB cryptostick or stored in cloud. Cloud-based electronic seal is stored in a special hardware security module that is included in the European Commission’s administrated list of qualified electronic signature and electronic seal creation devices.
With a cloud-based electronic seal there is no need to have a separate device as it’s integrated into the information system and can be accessible in a centralised way. This means that all the organisation users with the access can use it comfortably, without sharing a certain device. Plus, with the cloud-based electronic seal you can seal documents in batches rather than each one separately.
Furthermore a Qualified Electronic Seal is based on a qualified certificate issued by a Qualified trust Service Provider (QTSP) published in the EU Trust List. It enjoys the “the presumption of integrity of the data and of correctness of the origin of that data to which the qualified electronic seal is linked” (Section 5, article 35, eIDAS). In addition, a qualified e-seal is acknowledged and accepted equally within all EU member states regardless of which member state issued it.
- When and how to use the Electronic Seal. Countless uses
In all cases in which it is necessary to associate the information of a legal entity on an electronic document.
The possibilities are almost limitless. These can be e.g. HR department documents, commercial offers, marketing materials, invoices, or general correspondence. Electronically sealed files are much safer than their paper counterparts, as any change in them is immediately detected.
In the case of the qualified electronic seal, this can even replace the digital signature in some specific cases connected to electronic and digital preservation.
Definitely a qualified electronic seal ensures the confidentiality of data and the reliability of the organization. Therefore, it can be used by public administration entities and local government units. Of course, it is also widely used in business, both in small and medium-sized enterprises and large corporations. The electronic sealing service is essential to automate the processing and distribution of millions of electronic document volumes, so it is a valuable tool for organizations in the financial, telecommunications and energy sectors.
Besides authenticating the document issued by the legal entity, electronic seals can also be used to authenticate any digital asset of the legal person, such as software code or servers.