Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A rose by any other name - electronic signatures

(First appeared in New Era 18 February 2015)
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a reference from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is trying to convince Romeo Montague that it does not matter what his surname is even though her family and his are enemies.
The past weekend it was once again Valentine’s. The day is named after Saint Valentine and little is known other than his name and that he was martyred and buried at a cemetery in the north of Rome on that day. In modern times, it has become a business bonus and extremely commercialised. I even noted a large banking concern had teddy bears and hearts in their expansive foyer as if it was Xmas.
On Valentine’s Day it is tradition to give the one you love a present and also possibly a card with a special message and your signature. Some of us are so unsure about whether our love will be returned that we give a card signed ‘Secret Admirer’.
Your signature is a hand-written (possible stylised) version of your name and is often used to confirm your identity. This unique signature is a very powerful thing. Think about it: It has the power to transfer money from your bank account, to show your undying love on a Valentine card and to vote new laws into place. A signature can turn any piece of paper into a legally binding promise that can be upheld – in other words the bridge connecting a promise made and that the promise is kept.
Presently in Namibia there is no substitute for the original signature on a document. You could fax or email a copy of the document you signed but this will not hold up in a court of law. In plain terms it means that as long as your signature is genuine and the document original, the document is legally binding.
As technology has advanced, it has brought us easier ways for businesses and consumers to communicate and has resulted in most of our documents to shift from snail’s mail (posted letters) to electronic mail (email). In many countries the digital signature is now taking the place of hand-written ones.
In Namibia, we are expecting the government to pass an Electronic Transactions Bill that will catch up to the rest of the world. The Deputy Prime Minister, Libertina Amathila, reported in November 2004 that “… the working committee responsible for putting together the country’s first bill to govern and regulate use of electronic communications and transactions in Namibia says it will soon complete a draft to be presented to Cabinet by year-end.”
Amathila said the legal certainty to be established by such a law is to ensure that one’s rights are protected and that a person can have legal recourse in instances of misuse or criminal intent. The Bill aims to recognise electronic writing, signatures and records which will carry evidential weight, subject to certain conditions, in any legal proceedings.
The law might be ten years in the preparation, but like so many things in the world, Namibia takes long to implement but by the time we do we can learn from the mistakes of others. This leap-frogging means that by the time the Electronic Transactions Bill becomes a law it will include not only the long-awaited electronic signatures but should also clearly spell out what is considered criminal and civilly liable on all forms of social media. (For example cyber bullying, libel or slander as well as extortion and fraud.)
But let us look at what an electronic signature is and what it means for you as a consumer. An electronic signature, or e-signature, is an electronic means that indicates that you accept the contents of an electronic message and more broadly could be used to indicate that you who claim to have written the message is who you claim to be. The most common way to do this is to include your verified electronic signature in all emails and other form of electronic communication.
This will enable all of us, whether consumer, business or government, to easier and faster conclude transactions with one another in a trustworthy manner.
The only danger is that as we make our transactions more dependent on technology, we will have to be even more wary that it is not abused and our identities are not stolen. After all, I want be sure that the gift or card I received on Valentine’s Day is really from my wife. I would really not like to explain the present that I received and thanked my wife for, when it comes from someone else.

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