Tuesday, February 4th, 2020

What’s “Electronic” About “Electronic Signatures”?

The short answer is: Nothing. Why would this be an interesting question at all? The piece of EU legislation that currently regulates digital signatures uses the word electronic 357 times in 42 pages. So what’s wrong with it?

It is the fundamental and common mistake of confusing a message with its carrier.

The original directive from 1999 used electronic 68 times in 9 pages. The legal vocabulary has remained consistent since 1999. The current regulation repealed the original one in 2014 but it sticks with electronic.

A digital signature is a piece of information, a message. One might perhaps imagine that a signature represents the state of being signed, as compared to the state of not being signed. No, a digital signature is a chunk of information.

Information is not physical, neither matter or energy, but cannot exist without a physical carrier.

A digital signature may certainly be processed by electronics. It may also be printed as a QR code on paper or recorded to a CD disk. There is nothing electronic about paper or CD disks. There is nothing inherently electronic about a digital signature. Electronics is physical while information is not.

Digital signatures are digital.

A message, for instance a signature, exists independently of its carrier. Electronics is only one of a number of possible carriers of digital messages. Electronics in itself may be analog or digital, it is not automatically digital.

What does it mean to be digital? A digital message is a sequence of symbols from a limited alphabet. The alphabet may be A-Z, but as we saw in the example of QR codes, it may be something very different.

Several handy abbreviations are in common use, like email, e-governance, e-commerce and many others. Let’s keep the convenient abbreviations while remembering that all this stuff is digital.

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The full title of eIDAS is: REGULATION (EU) No 910/2014 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 23 July 2014 on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market and repealing Directive 1999/93/EC.

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