If John Hancock were signing the Declaration of Independence today, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t use pen and ink. While the Hancock method — physically marking a document to show assent — has been around for hundreds of years, technology has changed the way we sign documents, improving both data security and efficiency.

The Wet Look

Until a few decades ago, all signatures used on binding documents were “wet” — physically signed by a human being, in ink on paper. Signed paper documents were archived in boxes for many years, just in case future consultation was needed.

Wet signatures have obvious benefits: they don’t require special equipment or technology, and can be done by just about anyone. However, there are downsides to paper documents. They can be altered or forged, raising security concerns. Documents can be easily misfiled, lost or destroyed, potentially breaking the chain of custody. They take up physical space and require archiving in a secure, climate-controlled environment.

Authenticating wet signature documents can be difficult. Notarizing documents is a low-tech answer. However, a notary’s seal and signature are of the wet variety and bring along the baggage of wet-signature documents.

Managing physical documents can be challenging. Organizing and storing reams of paper is a monumental task, requiring complex coding and sorting. Even the best physical file systems have difficulty ensuring data privacy and security, especially with sensitive materials like medical records or legal case files.

The Ease of E-Docs

The fax machine and computer revolutionized document transmission and storage exponentially. Although originals still needed wet signatures, different signatories could sign in different geographic locations, exchanging signatures via fax or email. No need to store every piece of paper that might have future significance; the condensed digital form of a scanned document could reside on a tiny bit of computer storage space. Proper coding made all of those digital bits easy to access.

Although e-documents have opened new possibilities for storage and retrieval, they do present certain limitations. E-documents are merely images of wet signatures, thus still require additional steps to authenticate and secure. While the electronic transmission and storage of documents have been much needed improvements, document custodians were still presented with many practical challenges.

Give Me Your Digits

Enter the digital signature. Considered the most secure type of signature, a digital or cryptographic signature allows documents to be approved and signed from any device with internet access. And it’s a proven technology: you may have used e-signatures to sign your most recent federal tax return or help your teenager apply to college.

What exactly is a digital signature? The exact method of signing varies — using a stylus and touchscreen to create a digital version of your signature, uploading an image of your signature, or simply typing your name.

It’s not what your signature looks like that matters. Rather, it’s how secure the process is. Digital signatures use special technology to do three critical things:

  1. Confirm the validity of the signature (that it is you, and not an impostor, signing)
  2. Show whether the signature was altered or changed in any way after it was created
  3. Add extra layers of encryption to prove that both parties are who they say they are, the contents of the document haven’t been changed, and to maintain confidentiality.

Using Digitized Records with (previously) Wet Signatures in Court

Specialized E-Doc software, like Docusign, is commonplace in legal environments. Legal professionals are accustomed to the idea of digital signatures. Digital signatures are legally binding in the United States and many international jurisdictions.

When done properly, digital records are more secure and reliable than hard copies. With digital signatures, time-stamped tracking and chain of custody reports, digital records have been received favorably by courts. These so-called “soft” copies have been admitted into case files.

But this is still the law we’re talking about — technicalities are important. Many scanned records contain wet signatures, especially records that pre-date the introduction of e-signature technologies.

Although digital documents are legal, they must hold up under legal scrutiny. Compliance with legal standards is crucial. To ensure scanned documents with wet signatures are valid for court use:

  1. Establish a chain of custody to track who handled the record from pickup to post-digitization — including both humans and robots
  2. Provide chain of custody reports for each record, with a timeline of activity
  3. Establish proper security to protect document privacy, including encryption, access controls, and authentication
  4. Attach a digital certificate for each record to certify that the record has not been tampered with
  5. Send the digital version of the record to the original signatories to both verify its authenticity and to attain consent

Docusign Integration with Ripcord Canopy

To make it easier for users to re-execute contracts with legally binding digital signatures, Ripcord Canopy has integrated with Docusign. Customers will be able to:

  • Route documents in Canopy for re-signature in Docusign
  • Manage document workflow in accordance with company policies
  • Enforce multi-factor authentication to maintain document privacy

The integration is currently in beta, but here is a sneak peak:


Advantages of Digitizing Records

Apart from the certainty and security that encryption technology provides, you’ll find that digital documents have many advantages. They can be easily sorted, grouped into collections or projects, indexed, searched and retrieved without headache. Because they are accessed instantly, legal teams can reduce response times, avoid delays due to lost or misplaced paperwork, allow access by personnel in various geographies, reduce labor costs, and save money on logistics services.

Given the many benefits of digital signatures, today John Hancock might well opt for a digital signature on the Declaration of Independence, instead of making the dramatic quill-pen flourish for which he’s often remembered. History might not be the same, but it would be a heck of a lot more efficient.

Future of work