Electronic signature versus qualified signature [A quick guide]


A short guide for business on the differences between an electronic signature and a qualified signature. 

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Image author: Vojtech Okenka, source: pexels.com

You will learn from this paper about the various types of electronic signatures and the differences between them. The guide also contains information on how to obtain a qualified electronic signature.

This paper tackles the following issues:

  • what is an electronic signature,
  • what possibilities are offered by a non-qualified electronic signature,
  • in which situations the advanced electronic signature is sufficient
  • what the qualified electronic signature is used for
  • how to obtain a qualified electronic signature

What is an electronic signature?

An electronic signature is a set of tools which enable the authenticity of electronic documents to be confirmed. Its application is regulated by eIDAS Regulation issued by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union in 2014. 

According to the Polish Act on Trust Services and Electronic Identification and the aforementioned EU eIDAS Regulation, there are three types of electronic signatures:

  • an electronic signature also termed a non-qualified or ordinary signature,
  • an advanced electronic signature,
  • a qualified electronic signature.

Non-qualified electronic signature

This is an ordinary electronic signature that contains the owner's basic details: forename and surname, email address. It can be used in document work flows, but not in every instance.

Features of the ordinary electronic signature: 

  • it is verified with the use of a non-qualified certificate,
  • it has legal effect equivalent to a handwritten signature only if both parties have previously concluded an agreement in which they included provisions on the mutual recognition of signatures verified by a non-qualified certificate,
  • it is frequently used in internal corporate communication or as authentication when logging into systems,
  • no identity verification is required to issue a signature,
  • the certificate may be stored on the user’s disk or on a cryptographic card.

Advanced electronic signature

Means a signature which provides for precise identification of the signatory. In addition to such data as forename and surname, it also contains an identification number (PESEL - personal identification number, passport or personal ID card serial number) and citizenship. 

Features of the advanced electronic signature:

  • in accordance with eIDAS Regulation it is uniquely linked to a signatory;
  • it is created using electronic signature creation data that the signatory can, with a high level of confidence, use under his sole control (e.g. banking data authentication),
  • it is linked to the data signed in such a way that any subsequent change to the data is detectable,
  • the Trusted Profile is the example of such signature,
  • the signature is recognised in state government systems but it does not have the effect of a handwritten signature in non-official matters.

Qualified electronic signature

This is the sole electronic signature that has legal effect equivalent to a handwritten signature. It contains the same signatory data as the advanced signature but it has a different legal effect. 

This signature can be issued only by authorised entities and by qualified trust service providers authorised to issue certificates for qualified electronic signatures that have been submitted using qualified signature creation devices. The register of such entities is kept by the National Certification Centre. At present, qualified certificates are issued in Poland by five companies: EuroCert, KIR, PWPW, Certum by Asseco and Cencert.

A qualified electronic signature is a signature that is confirmed by a special qualified certificate enabling verification of the signatory.

During the process of obtaining a qualified certificate the identity of the applicant is verified. This process entails verification of the conformity of the information provided by a person applying for a qualified signature certificate with the information contained in a document confirming identity (personal ID card or passport). The process is carried out with personal participation of the applicant at the registered office of the company issuing the certificate, at partnership locations or at notary offices. 

A qualified signature has the same legal effect as a handwritten signature, as confirmed in Article 78, paragraph 1, of the Civil Code, which makes a qualified electronic signature equivalent to a handwritten signature:

Article 78(1) § 1. Submission of a declaration of intent in electronic form and signing it with a qualified electronic signature is sufficient to ensure the electronic form of a legal transaction.
§ 2. A declaration of intent made electronically is equivalent to a declaration of intent made in writing.

Benefits of a qualified signature:

  • it enables official matters to be handled,
  • it enables contracts to be concluded remotely,
  • it enables participation in electronic auctions on procurement platforms,
  • it enables invoices to be sent online.

 Detailed list of the benefits listed above: https://www.biznes.gov.pl/pl/portal/0075#2

A qualified signature allows agreements to be concluded online throughout the European Union.

How is a qualified electronic signature obtained?

A qualified electronic signature may be obtained from one of the certified providers. 
The buyer receives a package which usually contains: 

  • a qualified certificate valid for 1 or 2 years,
  • a special cryptographic card on which the qualified certificate is saved,
  • card reader (or mini reader) that connects to your computer,
  • software (applications) that require to be installed,
  • or select the cloud option and access to the certificate in the application or browser. 

The price of the certificate depends on the provider and the option selected and usually starts from around PLN 200. The price will also be affected by the validity period of the certificate. 

A qualified signature may also be purchased via special platforms for remote document signing.post 17 table eng

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