Digital Signature vs. Electronic Signature: Concept, Applications, and Security

12 min readMay 17, 2024


Table of Contents:

1- Introduction

2- Concepts and Definitions

3- Technical Overview

4- Applications

5- Security Aspects

6- Legal Considerations

7- Conclusion

1- Introduction

Signatures have evolved significantly from their traditional handwritten forms. The advent of technology has introduced new methods for verifying identity and securing documents, among which digital and electronic signatures are prominent. Understanding the differences between these two types of signatures is crucial for individuals and organizations that rely on secure and efficient document processing.

(Digital Signatures) and (Electronic Signatures) serve similar purposes but operate through different mechanisms and offer varying levels of security and convenience. A digital signature is a cryptographic technique that ensures the authenticity and integrity of a digital message or document.

Figure 1: Digital Signature vs. Electronic Signature (, 2024)

In contrast, a electronic signature is a digital image of a handwritten signature, often used in electronic documents to provide a personal touch. The importance of recognizing the distinctions between digital and electronic signatures extends beyond mere technicalities. These differences impact legal validity, security measures, and practical applications. For instance, while digital signatures are commonly used in legal and financial transactions due to their security features, electronic signatures are often found in less formal contexts where convenience and a personal touch are prioritized. This article post aims to discuss the concepts, applications, and security aspects of digital and electronic signatures.

2- Concepts and Definitions

Figure 2: A graphical example comparison between ‘Electronic Signature’ and ‘Digital Signature’ (, 2024)

2.1. Digital Signature:

A Digital Signature is an electronic method used to validate the authenticity and integrity of a message, software, or digital document. It relies on cryptographic techniques to create a unique digital code that is attached to the message or document. This code, often generated through algorithms like RSA or DSA, ensures that the content has not been altered and confirms the identity of the sender. To understand how a digital signature works, consider the following process:

a. The signer generates a pair of keys — a private key and a public key. The private key is kept secret, while the public key is distributed to others.

b. When signing a document, the signer uses their private key to create a hash of the document. This hash is a fixed-length string of characters representing the document’s content.

c. The hash is then encrypted with the private key, creating the digital signature. This signature is unique to both the document and the private key used to generate it.

d. To verify the signature, the recipient uses the signer’s public key to decrypt the signature and retrieve the hash. The recipient then generates a new hash from the received document and compares it to the decrypted hash. If the hashes match, the signature is valid, and the document is confirmed to be authentic and unchanged.

Examples of digital signature applications include electronic contracts, financial transactions, and software distribution, where maintaining the integrity and authenticity of digital content is critical.

2.2. Electronic Signature:

An Electronic Signature is a digital image of a handwritten signature. It is created by writing a signature on paper, scanning the paper to create a digital image, and then embedding that image into an electronic document. The electronic signature visually represents the signer’s handwritten signature but does not provide any cryptographic proof of authenticity or document integrity. The process of using an electronic signature is straightforward:

a. The signer writes their signature on paper and scans it using a scanner or a smartphone camera.

b. The electronic image is saved in a digital format, such as JPEG or PNG.

c. The digital image is inserted into an electronic document, such as a PDF or Word file.

Electronic signatures are commonly used for documents that require a personal touch or where the risk of forgery and tampering is minimal. Examples include personal letters, informal agreements, and certain types of administrative forms. They are easy to create and use, but they lack the security features of digital signatures. An electronic signature can be copied, manipulated, or forged without advanced technical skills, making it less suitable for sensitive or high-stakes documents.

3- Technical Overview

Digital Signatures use cryptographic methods to ensure the authenticity and integrity of digital documents. Here’s a detailed look at the process:

Figure 3:A process example how the digital signature is being created in a document between the signer till reaching the verifier (, 2024)

Step 1: The signer generates a pair of cryptographic keys — a private key and a public key. The private key is kept confidential, while the public key is shared with others.

Step 2: Before signing, the document undergoes a hashing process. A hash function generates a fixed-length string of characters (hash value) from the document’s contents. This hash value uniquely represents the document.

Step 3: The hash value is then encrypted with the signer’s private key, creating the digital signature. This encrypted hash, along with the public key, allows others to verify the document’s integrity and the signer’s identity.

Step 4: The digital signature is attached to the document. The original document and the digital signature together form a digitally signed document.

Step 5: To verify the signature, the recipient uses the signer’s public key to:

  • Decrypt the hash value from the digital signature.
  • Generate a hash value from the received document. If both hash values match, the document is confirmed to be authentic and unaltered, and the signature is verified.

Digital signatures are widely used in various applications, such as legal agreements, financial transactions, and software distribution, where data integrity and authentication are crucial.

Electronic Signatures are digital images of handwritten signatures inserted into electronic documents. Here’s the step-by-step process:

Figure 4: The encryption method the electronic signature use between before being sent to the destination (, 2024)

Creation: The signer writes their signature on a piece of paper.

Scanning: The handwritten signature is electronic using a scanner or a smartphone camera, creating a digital image file, such as JPEG or PNG.

Digitization: The electronic image is saved on a computer or another digital device.

Embedding: The digital image of the signature is inserted into an electronic document using software such as a PDF editor or word processor.

Usage: The electronic document with the embedded electronic signature can be shared or printed as needed.

Electronic signatures are often used for documents that require a visual representation of a signature, such as informal agreements, personal letters, and certain administrative forms.

The process of using electronic signatures is simple and quick, it does not provide the same level of security and authenticity as digital signatures. Electronic signatures can be easily copied, altered, or forged, making them less suitable for documents that require high security.

4- Applications

4.1. Common Uses of Digital Signatures

Digital signatures are employed in various sectors to ensure the security and authenticity of electronic transactions and documents. Here are some notable applications:

Figure 5: Six examples of the digital signature usage in different sectors (, 2024)

Digital signatures are extensively used in the signing of contracts, agreements, and other legal documents. They ensure that the signatories are authenticated and that the document has not been altered post-signature. This application is particularly important in remote transactions where physical presence is not possible.

In the financial sector, digital signatures play a crucial role in authorizing transactions, loan agreements, and other financial instruments. They provide a secure and efficient way to process approvals and reduce the risk of fraud. Many government agencies use digital signatures to streamline administrative processes. This includes filing taxes, applying for permits, and other services that require verification of identity and document integrity. In healthcare, digital signatures are used to sign medical records, prescriptions, and patient consent forms. This helps in maintaining the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive medical information. Software developers use digital signatures to sign their applications and updates to ensure that the software has not been tampered with and is from a verified source, protecting users from malware and other security threats.

4.2. Common Uses of Electronic Signatures

Electronic Signatures are used in various contexts where the ease of creating and embedding a signature is prioritized over advanced security measures. Some common uses include:

Figure 6: Seven different benefits why some users are keen to use the electronic signature ( ,2024)

Electronic signatures are often used in personal letters, greeting cards, and other informal communications. They provide a personal touch that is appreciated in non-professional contexts. For documents such as internal memos, non-binding agreements, and other informal documents, electronic signatures are frequently used. They convey the signer’s acknowledgment without the need for high security. Many administrative forms, such as school permission slips, employee acknowledgment forms, and other routine paperwork, often use electronic signatures. This simplifies the process for both the sender and the recipient. Electronic signatures are used to digitize and preserve historical documents. By scanning the original handwritten signatures, archives and libraries can maintain the authenticity of historical records in a digital format.

4.3. Case Studies

Adobe Sign is a widely used digital signature service that enables users to sign documents electronically. It is used by businesses and government agencies worldwide to streamline document workflows and ensure security and compliance.

DocuSign is a popular digital signature platform used in the real estate industry. Agents and clients use it to sign contracts and agreements remotely, which speeds up the transaction process and reduces the need for physical meetings.

A hospital implemented digital signatures for electronic health records (EHRs), allowing doctors to sign off on patient records electronically. This reduced paperwork, improved record-keeping efficiency, and ensured compliance with health information privacy regulations.

A university uses electronic signatures for student enrollment forms. Students can sign and submit their forms electronically, simplifying the enrollment process and reducing the need for in-person visits.

It is clear how digital and electronic signatures serve different needs and contexts. Digital signatures provide high level of security and legal compliance, while electronic signatures offer simplicity and ease of use in less critical situations.

5- Security Aspects

Figure 7: The signature validation process (, 2023)

5.1. Security Features of Digital Signatures

Digital signatures provide strong security through a combination of cryptographic techniques, ensuring the authenticity and integrity of digital documents. Here’s a detailed look at the security features of (Digital Signatures) as they are:

  • Using encryption to protect the integrity of the signed document. When a document is signed, a hash of the document is created and then encrypted with the signer’s private key. This process ensures that any alteration to the document after signing will be detected during the verification process.
  • Authenticating the identity of the signer. The use of a private key, which is known only to the signer, confirms that the signature was created by the purported signer. The corresponding public key is used by recipients to verify the signature.
  • Ensuring that the document has not been altered since it was signed. During verification, the recipient generates a hash of the received document and compares it with the decrypted hash from the digital signature. If the hashes match, the document is verified as unaltered.
  • Providing non-repudiation, meaning that the signer cannot deny having signed the document. The cryptographic evidence ties the signature to the signer, making it difficult to repudiate the signature without invalidating the private key, which would impact all other documents signed by that key.

5.2. Security Concerns with Electronic Signatures

Electronic signatures, while easy to create and use, do not offer the same level of security as digital signatures. Here are the key security concerns of (Electronic Signatures):

  • They are vulnerable to forgery and tampering. Since a electronic signature is merely an image, it can be copied, manipulated, or pasted onto another document with relative ease. This lack of inherent security makes electronic signatures unsuitable for high-security needs.
  • They do not provide a method for authenticating the signer’s identity. Unlike digital signatures, there is no cryptographic process to confirm that the signature belongs to the stated signer. This can lead to situations where the origin of the signature cannot be reliably established.
  • They do not ensure document integrity. There is no mechanism to detect if a document has been altered after the signature has been applied. Any changes made to the document after scanning are undetectable, posing significant risks in contexts where document integrity is crucial.

5.3. Statistical Comparisons and Examples

According to various industry reports, the adoption rate of digital signatures has increased significantly, with sectors like finance and legal seeing over 70% usage due to the need for high security and compliance. In contrast, electronic signatures are more commonly used in personal and informal contexts, where convenience is prioritized over security.

Studies have shown that documents signed with digital signatures experience fewer security breaches compared to those signed with electronic signatures. For example, a survey of financial institutions revealed that less than 5% of digitally signed documents encountered security issues, while documents with electronic signatures had a much higher incidence rate of forgery and tampering.

Surveys indicate higher user satisfaction with digital signatures, particularly in professional settings. Over 80% of legal professionals reported confidence in the security and legal validity of digital signatures. Conversely, while electronic signatures are appreciated for their simplicity, they are often viewed as less secure by users in high-stakes environments.

6- Legal Considerations

Digital signatures are widely accepted under various legal frameworks around the world. These frameworks establish the legal validity and enforceability of digital signatures in electronic transactions.

6.1. Global Legal Frameworks:

  • In the European Union, the eIDAS (Electronic Identification, Authentication, and Trust Services) Regulation provides a comprehensive legal framework for electronic signatures. It distinguishes between different types of electronic signatures and gives qualified electronic signatures the same legal standing as handwritten signatures.
  • In the United States, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (ESIGN) Act and the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) grant legal recognition to electronic signatures, making them equivalent to handwritten signatures for most transactions. These laws ensure that digital signatures cannot be denied legal effect solely because they are in electronic form.

6.2. Case Studies:

  • Financial regulators often require the use of digital signatures for certain transactions. For example, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) allows the use of digital signatures for electronic filings, provided they meet specified security and authentication standards.
  • Regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the U.S. mandate the use of secure electronic signatures for protecting patient information and ensuring the integrity of electronic health records.

6.3. Case Law and Precedents:

  • Courts have upheld the validity of digital signatures in various legal disputes. For example, in the case of State of New York v. McPherson, the court ruled that an electronic signature met the requirements of a written signature under New York law. Such precedents reinforce the reliability and acceptance of digital signatures in legal contexts.

Electronic signatures are accepted in certain situations, but their legal standing can be more limited compared to digital signatures.

6.4. Situations of Acceptance:

  • Electronic signatures are often used and accepted for informal agreements and personal transactions where the risk of disputes or forgery is low. Some administrative forms and internal documents, such as school permission slips or employee acknowledgment forms, commonly use electronic signatures due to their convenience.

Electronic signatures are easier to forge or alter, which can compromise their reliability in legal disputes. Courts need additional evidence to verify the authenticity of an electronic signature. Without cryptographic verification, it is challenging to prove the identity of the signer, making electronic signatures less reliable in high-stakes transactions. There have been cases where electronic signatures were contested in court. For example, in Lindsay v. ASIMCO Technologies, the court scrutinized the authenticity of electronic signatures due to the absence of verification methods. Such cases highlight the potential challenges and risks associated with using electronic signatures in legally sensitive situations.

Digital signatures offer strong legal standing and security features, making them suitable for formal and high-risk transactions. Electronic signatures, while useful for less critical contexts, it needs additional measures to ensure their acceptance and reliability in legal settings.

7. Conclusion

Examining statistics helps to highlight the practical differences between digital and electronic signatures. Digital signatures have seen widespread adoption across industries that require secure and efficient document handling. A survey by the American Bar Association indicated that over 80% of legal professionals use digital signatures for their secure and legally binding properties. Conversely, electronic signatures are more prevalent in personal and informal contexts due to their ease of use.

Research shows that documents signed with digital signatures experience significantly fewer security breaches compared to those signed with electronic signatures. For example, a study in the financial sector revealed that less than 5% of digitally signed documents encountered security issues, while documents with electronic signatures had a higher incidence rate of forgery and tampering.

User satisfaction surveys indicate a preference for digital signatures in professional settings. Over 75% of users in industries like finance and healthcare report high satisfaction with the security and efficiency of digital signatures. In contrast, electronic signatures receive positive feedback for their simplicity and accessibility, particularly among individual users and small businesses.

Finally, it becomes clear that digital signatures and electronic signatures serve different needs and contexts. Digital signatures are ideal for situations requiring high security and legal validity, while electronic signatures offer a simple and accessible solution for less critical applications. Understanding these differences helps users choose the appropriate method for their specific requirements.