In March, a new exhibition opened at the US National Archives in Washington DC. On display you could find, among other things, Adolf Hitler’s marriage certificate, witnessed by Goebbels; a greeting card from Saddam Hussein to George Bush; and a patent application from Michael Jackson for floor-lock shoes that allow the wearer to lean forward without falling over. The exhibition called ‘Making Their Mark’ aimed to show how the story of the world can be told through signatures.

In the months leading up to the exhibition’s opening, while the US archivists were busy trawling through the millions of documents available to them, a very different look at signatures was taking place across the Atlantic.

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The European Union’s new directive on electronic identification and trust services (eIDAS) was in the final stages of approval, with the goal of removing the final obstacles to integrated cross-border adoption of digital identification and transactions. By July, the legislation had been approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers[i]. On October 14th, it was presented to the world.

European legislation on the use of electronic signatures has been around since 1999[ii]. However, it failed to appreciate that electronic signatures don’t exist in isolation but as part of a transaction of some sort and therefore require consistent and uniform implementation in order to work.

Member states were able to interpret and apply the directive differently. This meant that firms had to deal with a highly complex and uncertain landscape. The directive also failed to address areas such as universal trust and authentication standards that are essential for secure and reliable electronic transactions.

As a result, many European firms found themselves trying to transform into agile, digital businesses while caught in a dependency on handwritten signatures.

Global information industry association AIIM recently discovered that, worldwide, around half of organisations print documents just to get a legally enforceable signature[iii]. In the UK, this figure rises to 84 percent[iv], with more than a quarter of firms (rising to 31 percent of enterprises) adding an additional day to a process just to allow for signature collection time.

Information management processes have been rendered chaotic. Half (49 percent) of the companies approached by AIIM admitted they had printed and signed documents only to scan them back in to their DM/ECM system. A third confessed that they had run off at least three additional copies of each document in order to collect all the signatures required.

Anything that can remove or reduce such inefficiencies and release information management teams to add value and insight across the business must be welcome and is certainly long overdue.

The new regulation aims to achieve this for European firms. It establishes, among other things, a uniform legal framework for electronic signatures, seals, and time stamps that guarantees authenticity and origin to prevent tampering, as well as registered delivery services. These will validate the source and integrity of electronic documents and the digital signatures they carry, paving the way for secure and trustworthy cross-border electronic transactions, applications and the delivery of public services.

The EU estimates that one billion advanced electronic signatures are already made across Europe every day[v] and the new legislation is likely to accelerate this still further.

However, being able to accommodate signed electronic documents is just part of the story. Companies still need to address the challenge of the paper they already hold, not to mention all the paper that continues to arrive. Good information governance should cover scanning, storage, security, management, access, archiving and secure disposal.

There is one further perspective. Signatures are not just administrative; they are symbolic. From birth and marriage certificates to wills and testaments, a handwritten signature is our way of saying that something matters: I announce, I agree, I approve, I commit.

Fortunately, e-signatures and handwritten ones are not mutually exclusive. A historic international treaty is not the same as a five-page loan application form. Some things are just meant to be hand-signed and preserved on paper. After all, who’d want to visit a museum to look at an exhibition of emails?

[i] http://certifiedsignature.eu/
[ii] e-signatures (Directive 1999/93/EC)
[iii] Digital Signatures: Ready for Production, AIIM, September 2014
[iv] http://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/10/24/more-8-10-uk-companies-print-documents-just-get-th/
[v] Neelie Kroes speech press release, European Commission eIDAS regulation launch event, 14 October, 2014

By Charlotte Marshall, Managing Director, Iron Mountain in the UK, Ireland and Norway

About Iron Mountain

Iron-Mountain-1Iron Mountain Incorporated (NYSE: IRM) is a leading provider of storage and information management solutions. The company’s real estate network of 64 million square feet across more than 1,000 facilities in 36 countries allows it to serve customers around the world. And its solutions for records management, data backup and recovery, document management and secure shredding help organisations to lower storage costs, comply with regulations, recover from disaster, and better use their information for business advantage. Founded in 1951, Iron Mountain stores and protects billions of information assets, including business documents, backup tapes, electronic files and medical data. Visit www.ironmountain.co.uk for more information.

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