“So what is an electronic signature anyway?”

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As I reviewed the blog entries here from my fellow Adobe Security Solutions teammates, I realized that with all of the gory technical information, we may have lost some of you, our dear readers.  With this entry, we’ll start a new series of articles that move the conversation up to a high-level, out of the dense fog of acronym warfare, and explain from a business user’s point of view what all this stuff means and how it can be useful for you in your organizations’ daily business processes.

So…electronic signatures.  We’ve variously mentioned digital signatures, eSignatures, electronic signatures, and signature odors.  Ok, well, not the last one, but to start, I’ll suggest that we use electronic signature as a generic term.  Electronic signatures can be defined as any electronic process signifying an approval to terms, and/or a document, presented in electronic format.  Electronic signatures frequently also have the added benefit of ensuring the integrity of the signed document to signify that (1) the document has not been changed since it was signed and (2) the signer cannot ‘repudiate’ or claim that they did not sign the document.

Electronic signatures encompass a broad gamut of technologies and methodologies, ranging from an “I agree” button in a click-thru agreement…



…to an electronic tablet which accepts a handwritten signature (oftentimes referred to as an eSignature)…



…to a digital signature cryptographically tied to a digital ID or certificate.



They can be used for internal approval processes for things as simple as time-off requests, for more formal documentation and acceptance of account opening terms in a branch office of a bank, for signing off on critical infrastructure planning documents, and to protecting the reputation of a country’s electronic documents by certifying authorship and the integrity and status of the document itself.

Organizations choose electronic signatures for many reasons.  Among them:

  • Workflow Efficiency – It’s faster for someone to click a button or enter a password than to route a document to them through interoffice mail or courier.
  • Save Money – By going electronic, you eliminate the cost of paper, printing, and courier services.
  • Document Integrity – Organizations publish vast amounts of material to the internet, but are now becoming increasingly concerned about what happens to those documents in the wild.  It’s critical to reputations and revenue that documents are not modified to create a false or fraudulent impression of the organization.

You’ll notice that many of these reasons mirror those that accompanied the rise of the electronic document and form in the first place.  This is not accidental — electronic signatures are a natural extension of the movement to electronic documents.  Many companies have gone fully electronic only to come to the signature step and require customers to print out documents which are signed in wet ink and then sent via the mail to be re-entered into a system. This is neither efficient, nor timely, nor a good use of resources.  Electronic signatures, at their core, represent a vital way to leverage a company’s assets and increase savings based on key technology investments.

Adobe supports all of the electronic signatures described above via our LiveCycle® ES suite as well as our Adobe® Acrobat® and Adobe Reader® client software packages.  Adobe’s Security Partner Community plays an essential role as well, supplying key components for electronic signature solutions.  Adobe is also a member of the Electronic Signatures and Records Association, a new organization which seeks to expand knowledge on both electronic signature and records and also play an active role in public policy on these topics.

In our next ‘tutorial’ entry, we’ll explore the question of assurance in electronic signatures.

UPDATED: Per a recent comment, here are links to our other tutorial blogs…

Trust Us – Electronic Signatures and Assurance

“This is legal, right?” – Electronic Signatures and the Law /  Additional Resources on Signatures and the Law

“Sign Here” – Getting Started with Electronic Signatures in Adobe Products




Posts, The Archives

Posted on 02-21-2008


  • By margaret dossry - 9:44 PM on September 20, 2010  

    My question is whether or not the process that I just went through is legal or illegal. I was presented with an e mail document to “sign” as a e signature. But when the document came up there was already my name signed by somone on the other end of the phone. Is this legal. It is not in my writing and I did not want this thing signed by anyone, especially not by someone I do not know or want to know. This is wide open for fraud. Please let me know what I am missing about these e signatures. Thanks Margaret

  • By Nick Grimard - 3:31 PM on October 22, 2010  

    Certain websites use a PIN number or password to authenticate a user when accepting Terms and conditions, or submitting documents that are legally binding.

    Is there an industry standard for assigning a PIN/password to a user online? It seems to me the requirements vary from site to site.

    Also is clicking “I agree” actually legally binding? If so, are there and reference cases where an organization was sued, and an online “I agree” button was clicked to accept certain terms and conditions that were broken, that letter stood up in court. I find with the “I agree” button there is no way to authenticate the user other than their IP address. For example, let’s say a receptionist is downloading documents on your behalf and she agrees to a Non Disclosure Agreement online. In no way does she have the authority to bind the organization.

    So in what situations are the various above mentioned forms of electronic signatures acceptable? It seems to me that a handwritten esignature is a lot more secure than an “I agree” button. Is this just my perception do all the above mentioned forms of electronic signatures equivalent?

  • By Melvin Faisao - 6:13 AM on October 31, 2010  

    Great news and very informative.

  • By Tim Dean - 4:15 PM on March 1, 2011  

    My employer sends out contracts in PDF format. These include finanacial contracts which must be filled-out, printed, signerd and faxed back to the company. They asked me to purchase a Topaz T-S460-HSB-R Signature pad, but Adobe Reader won’t let me e-sign the documents.

    How do I “educate” my employer about what has to be done to the original documents to allow commenting and “ink signatures” while helping them understand that e-signatures are the best and safest way for them to simplify workflow while protecting themselves in court?

    Is there a simple tutorial available? A how-guide? Please help.

  • By John Gage - 3:09 PM on March 5, 2011  

    It would help to link this tutorial to the next. As it is, I have no idea where your next “tutorial” entry is, and I don’t want to waste time to find it.

    • By John B Harris - 4:53 PM on March 14, 2011  


  • By Gemalto | Our blog | Fax for the memories - 2:51 PM on May 10, 2011  

    […] many years, and are far more secure than an incomprehensible scrawl on a piece of paper. Over on Adobe’s blog there’s a good nuts and bolts description of electronic signatures and how they can help […]