Sign On the Digital Line

maybe we could just have people initial their signatures to show that they were the ones who wrote them


One of the stumbling blocks in the electronic world of the design professional is the need for certification of construction documents. Details vary from state to state, but until recently, all required a "wet" signature on at least one piece of paper. There is some justification for wet signatures, but the fallacies of the existing system are obvious.

Today's copiers are so good that it is easy to tape a number of pieces of paper together and produce a faultless "original". The same is true for signatures. Give just about anyone a collection of signatures, a scanner, and a good copier, and it will be impossible to tell a copy of a wet-signed paper from a fake.

Even when originals with wet signatures are used, there is no way to know who actually signed the paper. Of course, we could require that the certification page be signed by a notary, but many offices have their own notaries, who might well be willing to notarize a fake signature to keep their jobs. We could have witnesses and a notary, or maybe we could just have people initial their signatures to show that they were the ones who wrote them.

Last year the federal government passed a law that makes electronic signatures as legal and binding as a wet signature. Many states are working on similar laws, and universal acceptance shouldn't be too far away. At worst, electronic signatures will be as good as wet signatures; in practice, they may well be more easily verified and harder to forge.

Verisign, at, is a popular source of digital certificates that can be used to verify the source of e-mail messages. A relative newcomer, OnSign, at, offers a free add-in for Microsoft Word and Outlook. It uses a scanned image of your signature and a password as the basis for its security. Once "signed" by the program, a document is flagged as invalid if it has been altered after being signed.

Looking ahead, certification may eventually take a different form. It might be accomplished by use of thumbprints, retinal scans, facial scans, or maybe even a chip embedded in a finger (scary thought!). For more information about digital signatures, go to,, and, where you will find links to a variety of on-line resources.

2001 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, 
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