Qualified electronic signature – what is it?

Published October 6, 2020

Alexander Heesch Brand Manager | Solution & Product Marketing Manager d.velop

Qualified electronic signature is, simply put, a type of an Advanced Electronic Signature. To simplify it even more, it is a digital signature. It seems like the word “digital” is everywhere these days. Everything, or let’s say many things, work only in digital or electronic form today, whether we are talking about radios, watches, or transferring money using online banking. What used to be unthinkable is now an everyday occurrence. We used to sign contracts by hand and now we can do so “digitally” or electronically. Let’s have a closer look: what exactly is a qualified electronic signature and what can you actually sign with it?

Digital signatures are possible thanks to the eIDAS Regulation

The eIDAS Regulation defines and regulates trust services such as advanced and qualified electronic signatures across the EU. This regulation places qualified electronic signatures on par with handwritten signatures in legal terms. These trust services are provisioned by trust service providers. The eIDAS regulation defines trust service providers as companies that are able to issue certificates for advanced and qualified signatures according to the technical requirements and thus prove that the digital signature can actually be attributed to the signatory. Why is that important? We will tell you more in a minute. The field of qualified certificates is monitored by the national supervisory authority, the German Federal Network Agency. Literature concerning the subject addresses a third form of signature in addition to the advanced and qualified ones: the standard signature. Find out more about benefits of remote signing here.

Standard signatures vs. advanced signatures

Standard signatures place no requirements on the proof of identity of the person “represented.” This type of digital signature is very easy to forge because the signatory does not have to be a proven natural person. Even scanned signatures at the bottom of documents and signatures in e-mails (e-mail footers) qualify as standard electronic signatures. There is no way to verify the integrity (authenticity) of the document, which makes this kind of signature very insecure. Essentially, documents with standard signatures are subject to free judicial consideration of evidence on the part of a judge. This is also the case for advanced signatures.

Advanced electronic signatures, in contrast, are based on a pair of keys that can be unequivocally attributed to one person. This form of identity verification can be checked by anyone, making it transparent. The private key is subject only to the control of the key owner (the signatory). As a result, it can be used to create digital signatures and attribute them to certain people.

With the help of a chip card, a USB stick, a software certificate, or remote triggering, it is then possible to create this kind of advanced signature electronically. Advanced signatures also make it possible to verify the integrity of documents.

The qualified signature (QS)

Only one form of electronic signature comes into question when a contractual or legal requirement of written form needs to be fulfilled: the qualified electronic signature. It is the equivalent of a signature written in the signatory’s own hand pursuant to § 126 of the German Civil Code. However, if legislation explicitly precludes the electronic form to the effect that a handwritten signature must be used, an electronic signature cannot be used to facilitate the process. Such situations include notarial certifications or termination of employment relationships.

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Creating electronic signatures with the trust service provider Bundesdruckerei

Anyone in the EU, and therefore in Germany, who wants to create qualified electronic signatures needs to use a confirmed trust service provider. In Germany, this kind of service is provided by the Bundesdruckerei and other providers and is called “sign-me.” The current registration process is quite simple and takes only a few minutes to complete. In the end, it is possible to create a qualified electronic signature using the right software. A list of trust service providers can be found in the itemization issued by the European Commission.

In the next blog article about digital signatures, you will find out whether digital signing is a one-sided procedure and what to do if a contract partner does not want to sign digitally.

If you want to learn more about qualified electronic signature sign up for our webinar now. We will tell you all about the benefits of electronic signature and how to successfully implement it in your company.