Last week, the government, through the Minister of Youth and ICT, and Rwanda Development Board (RDB), introduced the digital signature, which is one of the benefits that the internet offers.
A digital signature, also called an electronic signature, means data in electronic form that is used for security and trust in electronic business and communications.
It is nowadays based on applied cryptography with asymmetrical keys. It can, however, be noted that digital signature and electronic signature aren’t new terminologies in the eyes of Rwandan netizens.
They are already incorporated in the law relating to electronic messages, electronic signatures and electronic transactions of 2010, but what has been in place is scant implementation.
Though people, at times, use digital signature and electronic signature interchangeably, they’re technically different. An electronic signature refers to an “electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to, or associated with, a contract or other record and adopted by a person with the intent to sign a record”.
In other words, an electronic signature can be regarded as a method of signing, data authentication, use authentication, or capture of intent.
Digital signature, on the other hand, refers to the encryption or decryption technology on which an electronic signature solution is built. A digital signature alone is not a type of electronic signature.
Rather, digital signature encryption secures the data associated with a signed document and helps verify the authenticity of a signed record. However, if used alone, it cannot capture a person’s intent to sign a document or be legally bound to an agreement or contract.
The prime purpose of introducing digital signature is to build public confidence in the security of digital transactions and to encourage more people to use electronic signatures, by demonstrating to individuals and businesses their advantage over handwritten signatures. People and businesses should be able to transact within a borderless digital single market, that is the value of the internet.
Indeed, people who do business on the internet require security and trust.
Apart from being one of the cybersecurity measures, digital signatures are quickly replacing paper-based signatures and have the potential to dominate signature-related processes.
The particular benefits of this technology include increased efficiency, lower costs and increased customer satisfaction. Rwandans need to be sensitised to adapt to this new technology as they have done to other ICT-related services, such as e-payment for water bill, electricity billetc.
Processes that still require a handwritten signature slow down turnaround time, bureaucracy in service delivery, increase complexity in terms of archiving, and, also, in some countries, raise environmental issues with regards to paper usage.
Companies, or private entities in general, need to be encouraged to adopt digital signature solutions to address those challenges associated with non-use of digital signature.
As noted elsewhere, the law relating to e-signature and digital signature has, however, been scantily implemented. In my view, it lacks awareness raising. Since the government has kick-started this new technology, it should also go the extra mile and urge all citizens, and public and private agencies to adapt and shore up the use of digital signature in their business spheres.
While the government exhorts people to adapt to the digital signature, it should, equally, anticipate likely challenges and be ready to address them. In this digital era, most innovations offer numerous benefits to us, but also have certain drawbacks.
For example, some keys are easier to decrypt than others, depending on the quality of algorithms and on the number of bytes used. Also, the organization that provides the keys may have or not some technical or economic requirement to be an accreditated Certification Authority and their public reputation and respectability may or may not be an issue.
So, there’s a need to foresee those challenges.
The biggest problem of digital signature is to use it as evidence in court. Naturally, when a piece of paper is presented to the court, it must be demonstrated to be authentic in order to be admissible and must be physically signed.
Of course, in Rwanda, electronic evidence are allowed in court but digital signature is tricky to prove. In practice, a paper purporting to bear a signature will need to be shown to have been actually signed by the party in question and not someone else.
But ‘digital signatures” don’t incorporate any form of physical signature at all, and thus there is always the possibility that the person on the other end of the computer typing words into a box is not, in fact, the person on whose behalf they’re “signing”.
Anyway, despite likely challenges, digital signature ensures, first, the integrity of data that can be ensured as counterfeiting is virtually impossible, while a paper document can be modified after being signed by an unauthorised person.
Second, the probability of losing a digital copy is much lower compared to paper-based documents. Third, all types of data, whether photos or audio files, can be digitally signed, which protects the copyright of these materials.
Last but not least, a timestamp can be attached to the digital signature, ensuring that the document was signed on a specific date.
The writer is an International Law expert.