A signature on the dotted line means that the deal is sealed. There was a time when that function was served by a firm handshake. But a handshake could not hold up in a court of law. As it turns out, “We shook on it” was not a particularly compelling defense. No one could prove what a handshake confirmed, or even that it ever took place. A signature on a piece of paper with terms and conditions did what the handshake failed to accomplish. Until recently, signatures have gone unchallenged and unchanged since the fifth century.

Conventional wisdom says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But signatures are broken. The world has changed. And handwritten signatures can no longer serve their ancient purpose of authentication. Advances in technology have made the humble signature practically obsolete. Here is why the signature must adapt:

Digital signature on a smartphone

Signatures are Cumbersome

For a sales person, there is nothing worse than closing a deal over the phone, only to have it held up, and ultimately torpedoed by the inability to immediately collect a signature.

Something very similar can happen to companies trying to hire the best talent. After going through the hiring decision process, the deal is still not complete until the signing. For that, the prospective employee has to come into the office to complete the paperwork. By the time that happens, a more nimble company has sealed the deal.

In every way, collecting a handwritten, paper signature is more cumbersome and costly than collecting a secure, e-signature. Even more convenient is a product that allows you to sign from the smartphone already in your pocket. Signnow.com says the benefits of such a system include cutting turnaround time by as much as 90% and conserving paper.

These benefits are not specific to a single company, but are inherent in the move from paper to e-signatures.

Signatures are Insecure

What makes a signature legally binding and secure? It is a little known fact that a signature does not have to be an alphabetical representation of your name. It can be as simple as an X that marks the spot. Digital signatures carry a few more regulations than that.

After many small steps through the 1990s, the year, 2000, brought us the first federal E-Sign Act. A more complete history can be found, here.

But establishing the legality of e-signatures did little to make signatures safer. It just made them more convenient. Signatures can still be faked. Handwriting expertise does little to strengthen security, as most people who accept your signature are not handwriting experts, and hove ho authentic signature to which it can be compared.

Signature and pen
photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz / Flickr

Signatures are Illegible

The only thing more illegible than the Rx on a prescription, is the signature. My signature is intentionally illegible. I also write it a little differently every time. I have yet to be called on it for any reason. My sneaking suspicion is that no one even looks at signatures anymore, if they ever did, because they are no more readable to the person at the register than is cyrillic.

Bad checks are written by identity thieves all the time. And they get away with it. Signatures have become meaningless wastes of ink. They hinder the smooth conduct of business, they are insecure, and they are unreadable. They are extremely copiable. They are spoofed all the time. And this is what we are using to authenticate the most important transactions in our lives. This has to change.

E-signatures have come a long ways. They can be implemented with less friction. They at least have the security of the device used to capture them. And some e-signatures can be typed rather than handwritten, making them actually readable.

Even better than e-signatures would be biometric authentication such as fingerprint scanning. But until biometric authentication is ubiquitous, e-signatures are the way to go.