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3.8.1 What is the legal status of documents signed with digital signatures?

If digital signatures are to replace handwritten signatures they must have the same legal status as handwritten signatures, i.e., documents signed with digital signatures must be legally binding. NIST has stated that its proposed Digital Signature Standard (see Question 3.6.8) should be capable of ``proving to a third party that data was actually signed by the generator of the signature.'' Furthermore, U.S. federal government purchase orders will be signed by any such standard; this implies that the government will support the legal authority of digital signatures in the courts. Some preliminary legal research has also resulted in the opinion that digital signatures would meet the requirements of legally binding signatures for most purposes, including commercial use as defined in the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). A GAO (Government Accounting Office) decision requested by NIST also opines that digital signatures will meet the legal standards of handwritten signatures.

However, since the validity of documents with digital signatures has never been challenged in court, their legal status is not yet well-defined. Through such challenges, the courts will issue rulings that collectively define which digital signature methods, key sizes, and security precautions are acceptable for a digital signature to be legally binding.

Digital signatures have the potential to possess greater legal authority than handwritten signatures. If a ten-page contract is signed by hand on the tenth page, one cannot be sure that the first nine pages have not been altered. If the contract was signed by digital signatures, however, a third party can verify that not one byte of the contract has been altered.

Currently, if two people wish to digitally sign a series of contracts, they may wish to first sign a paper contract in which they agree to be bound in the future by any contracts digitally signed by them with a given signature method and minimum key size.


next up previous
Next: 3.8.2 What is a Up: 3.8 Misceallenous Previous: 3.8 Misceallenous
Denis Arnaud
12/19/1997