Digital Signature Tutorial
From the American Bar Association, in connection with the ABA's pioneering and highly influential Digital Signature and PKI Guidelines.
In today's commercial environment, establishing a framework for the authentication of computer-based information requires a familiarity with concepts and professional skills from both the legal and computer security fields. Combining these two disciplines is not an easy task. Concepts from the information security field often correspond only loosely to concepts from the legal field, even in situations where the terminology is similar. For example, from the information security point of view, "digital signature" means the result of applying to specific information certain specific technical processes described below. The historical legal concept of "signature" is broader. It recognizes any mark made with the intention of authenticating the marked document. In a digital setting, today's broad legal concept of "signature" may well include markings as diverse as digitized images of paper signatures, typed notations such as "/s/ John Smith," or even addressing notations, such as electronic mail origination headers.
From an information security viewpoint, these simple "electronic signatures" are distinct from the "digital signatures" described in this tutorial and in the technical literature, although "digital signature" is sometimes used to mean any form of computer- based signature. These Guidelines use "digital signature" only as it is used in information security terminology, as meaning the result of applying the technical processes described in this tutorial.
To explain the value of digital signatures in legal applications, this tutorial begins with an overview of the legal significance of signatures. It then sets forth the basics of digital signature technology, and examines how, with some legal and institutional infrastructure, digital signature technology can be applied as a robust computer-based alternative to traditional signatures.