This unsung technology stopped the business world from crumbling under the pandemic

While eSignatures might not be considered the world's sexiest technology (though a minority may disagree), they certainly serve a distinct and invaluable purpose: to facilitate remote agreement.

This particular attribute, in the current circumstances, is more important than ever. Without the ability to create and sign agreements from afar, as well as to properly identify the parties subject to those agreements, the pandemic could have brought business to even more of a standstill.

Instead of shaking hands across the boardroom table, the pandemic forced businesses and governments to negotiate over email and video conferencing platforms and, crucially, to formalize those agreements virtually too.

Demand for digital

TechRadar Pro spoke with two of the eSignature industry's most prominent players, DocuSign and OneSpan, both of which have seen a significant uptick in demand in recent months and also anticipate a long-term impact on the way business is conducted.

“We've always built our products to be used in an entirely remote way,” explained Kirsten Wolberg, Chief Technology and Operating Office at DocuSign.

“Obviously we have our fingers crossed the current situation won't last forever, but we're realizing the need for remote solutions is something that will always be with us as we move forward.”

According to Michael Lakhal, Director Product Management Agreement Automation at OneSpan, coronavirus served to expedite an existing movement towards digital-first interaction, forcing the hand of reluctant businesses and consumers alike.

“With social distancing orders in place, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we interact with businesses and accelerated an already growing trend away from face-to-face interactions. Electronic signature technology has been an essential driver of this digital acceleration,” he said.

The pair also noted the emergence of fresh use cases for eSignature technology, made necessary by public health considerations.

“If you think about when you used to go into a hospital, you would likely be handed a clipboard with a piece of paper and a pen,” said Wolsten. “We've automated that process so individuals don't have to touch pens and swap clipboards - they can do it all on their personal phones.”

On a morbid note, the pandemic has also forced the UK Ministry of Justice to revisit laws that prevent wills from being signed and witnessed remotely.

“In the digital age, electronic wills such as audio recordings, video recordings or pure electronic or digital documents should become mainstream in light of the pandemic,” affirmed Lakhal.

Digital identification

The need to verify an individual's identity digitally is now critical for businesses in all manner of scenarios, including recruitment, customer onboarding and when formalizing partnerships.

On the face of it, digital identification appears a minefield from a fraud and identity theft perspective, but both DocuSign and Onespan lean on a host of technologies to ensure eSignatures are as legally binding as any ‘wet signature'.

“The best way to verify identity without compromising on experience or security is to implement context-aware identity verification, driven by AI and machine learning, that combines traditional identity verification methods with advanced risk-based analytics,” explained Lakhal.

“Checks can be performed using real-time ID document capture and biometric verification, such as taking a ‘selfie' to match with the validated ID document and liveness detection. This approach means multiple pieces of information from different sources, across multiple digital channels, are reviewed in context to successfully verify the identity of a customer.”

With these measures in place, digital signatures are as legally binding as their handwritten counterparts, affording businesses and consumers a vital measure of flexibility in the face of current challenges.

Asked how the eSignature and digital identity space might change in light of the pandemic, Wolberg argued the product's core value proposition is the same as it always has been, but the specific needs of end users have changed dramatically.

“We're seeing the need [for digital identity verification] in a number of different places. There's the new hire use case, lending, banking fraud prevention and remote mortgages,” she said.

“What's changed is not the nature of the product. It's the acceleration of the adoption and utilization of the product as people have been forced into a remote space.”

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