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The digital signature is making its way into law firms in Austria.

September 20, 2022 by Dr. Fabian Knirsch

People trust lawyers. Lawyers trust sproof. Thanks to the integration in ADVOKAT - the leading law firm software in Austria - and the partnership with the traditional publisher Linde, more and more law firms are relying on the advantages of a digital signature platform. Most recently, Binder Grösswang, one of Austria's large law firms, has opted for the young Salzburg-based company.

1 Binder Grösswang signs digital

"In our industry, it's all about commitment and trust. The digital signature, in the highest quality class, has become a common way for us to make binding decisions or to obtain them digitally."

Dr Christian Zwick | Partner

Binder Grösswang has been one of Austria's leading law firms for 60 years, with offices in Vienna and Innsbruck. More than 100 lawyers and a transaction volume of 50 billion euros speak for themselves. After the decision to integrate a digital signature platform was made, sproof emerged as the favourite after a rigorous phase of evaluation.

"It is a very special honour that we were able to convince Binder Grösswang, as an established but above all innovative law firm, of sproof and win their trust," says Dr. Fabian Knirsch, founder and CTO of the company.

Binder Grösswang - especially the team around Dr Christian Zwick - signs digitally when it is legally possible. "In principle, we always sign when the pen is to be replaced. In Austria, this is almost all documents, as the principle of freedom of form applies under civil law," says Dr. Zwick.

Accordingly, the digital signature is used for these documents, among others:

  • Powers of attorney
  • sales contracts
  • non-disclosure agreements
  • Resolutions

2 Convincing reasons why lawyers rely on digital signatures

The legal profession has always been an integral part of any functioning society. Trust and good communication between lawyers and clients are the foundation. It may sound a little dogmatic, but the legal profession is certainly not a pioneer in the advancement of digitalisation. This is probably because traditional techniques and workflows, which have been established and proven for centuries, do not want to be replaced.

However, the "legal profession" has now also recognised the strengths of sensible digitisation for various reasons. Be it the digital file, instead of overflowing archives, or even experimenting with various digital "speech to text" applications that could relieve the secretariat in certain places or even replace it in the future for the many paperwork tasks.

One digitalisation opportunity in particular, which also holds great potential for the legal sector, is on the rise: the digital signature!

Declarations, resolutions and contracts - all these are documents that have to be signed by one or more people. Even one document on which three people have to sign by analogue means a total time expenditure of around 45 minutes: This includes printing in triplicate, sending documents by post or coordinating a joint appointment for the signature. This waste of resources is dispensable.

In the private sector, the digital signature has already been able to establish itself in Austria in the form of the "mobile phone signature". For some years now, many Austrian citizens have been using this free state service.

However, "only" the digital signature alone is usually insufficient in the business environment. There is a lack of technical possibilities, a tool or a platform that can map the specific use cases and "signature runs" for an industry or a company. An associated common "dashboard" provides a good overview of important documents. This requires a central administration of all users and a rights and role management. This also has many advantages.

In many companies, regardless of size or sector, a digital signature platform is already an integral part of many standard workflows. The legally recognised technology is already used in the legal sector, in taxation, in the financial sector, but also by large internationally operating top companies with strict IT guidelines and in the public sector.

3 Instead of ink & paper: cryptographic encryption and digital proof of identity

The digital signature is an indispensable building block of the digital transformation. Nevertheless, many doubt whether the digital signature is legally valid and thus legally compliant. But digital signatures and their binding nature are precisely defined and regulated in the European Union. The eIDAS Regulation (EU) 910/2014 (Electronic Identification and Authentication Services) laid down the regulations for Europe in 2006 regarding the highest level of security and conformity of digital signatures. The regulation regulates the legal recognition of electronic proof of identity and authentication services and thus considerably strengthens trust in electronic communication between companies and citizens and facilitates cross-border services and business processes of all kinds.

There are three digital signature standards which have been precisely defined in terms of legal validity in the eIDAS Regulation: simple, advanced and qualified.

The signatures look almost the same on the surface, but the status of the signature and its binding force are very different. Only the "qualified electronic signature", also called QES, is legally comparable to a signature (see § 4 paragraph 1 Austrian Signature and Trust Services Act (SVG).

The FES and QES enable secure digital signing.

Due to the highest compliance & security, only the qualified electronic signature comes into consideration for many law firms. A digital signature that is equivalent to the conventional signature on paper.

But how does the high level of security come about from a technical point of view? What is the high probative value of the qualified electronic signature?

4 The qualified signature: It is no mystery

Even though the relevant specialist media are always trying to cast the qualified electronic signature in the most complex and technical light possible, we at sproof have made it our business to reveal the supposed "mystery" - in a nutshell.

As with many other electronic legal or banking transactions, you must be able to prove your own identity with 100% certainty. This is done initially by means of a short (approx. 10-minute video identification procedure) in which your personal data and also biometric data are checked by a state-approved service (Trust Service Provider).

Afterwards, you will be able to use a mobile phone app to additionally verify every digital signature you make. The mobile phone is thus your second security factor in addition to your e-mail address, which you need anyway to sign and obtain signatures.

Qualified signing (QES)

Here you can find out how to sign qualified with sproof. The qualified digital signature is 100% equivalent to the handwritten signature.
Watch video

The signed documents themselves are digitally encrypted using cryptographic methods. Only the owners of a document, or those who have been invited to sign it, can edit the document or just sign it. Each document is provided at all times with a unique cryptographic key that is impossible for any human or computer to see. The validity and evidential value of the document is also independent of the signature platform used, since the cryptographic key (or "hash value") is imprinted in the pdf. file itself. Consequently, any printing out and physical filing of the document is also pointless, as the traceability is extinguished by printing out the document.

In order to verify the validity of an electronic signature and the conformity as described above, the signed (digital!) document can be verified with the national signature verification services, e.g. via the Communications Authority Austria:
https://www.rtr.at/TKP/was_wir_tun/vertrauensdienste/Signatur/signaturpruefung/Pruefung.de.html
platforms such as sproof as a platform itself offers an integrated verification service.

In short: The qualified digital signature is 100% forgery-proof & legally valid. A signature made by hand is also 100% legally valid, but never 100% forgery-proof.

sproof is one of the few signature platforms that enables the verification of digital signatures directly in the tool.

5 It doesn't take much to get started with the qualified digital signature.

Digital signatures are technically demanding and require a special degree of responsibility from the manufacturer's point of view - after all, the signatures generated with them offer the highest degree of bindingness. However, a broad spectrum of users, from lawyers to secretaries to clients, must be able to work with them easily, quickly and intuitively.

The technical complexity is completely hidden in sproof and a simple and low-threshold access is created. Philipp Gernerth is responsible for UI and UX (User Interface and User Experience) at sproof.

"We are developing a modern, technically highly sophisticated product that offers the highest security and commitment guarantees. Nevertheless, it must be extremely simple and intuitive to use. Otherwise we miss the mark," explains Philipp Gernerth, who is responsible for UX (user experience) and UI (usability) at sproof.

Dr Christian Zwick (Binder Grösswang) and Philipp Gernerth (sproof) at a meeting in Vienna at the newly designed headquarters in Vienna, 1st district.
The innovative law firm stands for openness towards young companies. An exchange about the use cases of the digital signature in the legal industry is profitable for both sides.

(Binder Grösswang, Vienna 2022)

From the user:s point of view, the qualified electronic signature thus essentially means the following:

  • You have a document to sign that is available as a Word or PDF document. You load this into the signature software to sign it. You can find the signature software at https://sign.sproof.io . You can start free of charge at any time.

  • A qualified electronic signature requires a one-time identification. This means you have to identify yourself in a short video call ("Video-Ident procedure") and show your (valid) passport or identity card there. This identification is only necessary once and is then valid for five years or (if this occurs earlier) until the expiry of your identity document.

  • In the course of identification, you install an app on your mobile phone or alternatively -- if you cannot or do not want to install the app -- you will later receive a one-time code via SMS.

  • To sign a document, you select the position of your digital signature and optionally upload a picture of your handwritten signature. Now authorise the signature on the mobile phone via the app or enter the one-time code received via SMS. The image of your signature has no legal relevance here, but enables a common and familiar representation of the signature. The legally binding signature is applied "invisibly" in the background in purely digital form.
    The document is now digitally signed in a legally valid manner. sproof also converts the document into the PDF/A format commonly used and required by lawyers. You, your clients or the court can check the conformity of the document and the electronic signature at any time, e.g. at the state testing service of the RTR.

6 Sensitive data in safe hands

When using digital signature services, data protection plays a special role. This is especially important with so-called "cloud software" (i.e. software that does not have to be installed but can be used directly via the web browser and the internet). This offers the advantage of being immediately ready for use without the need for your own hardware or an IT project. In addition, the software can be accessed from anywhere, even mobile. Data transmission is always encrypted using the latest technology and at the highest security level.

"The cloud is up and running from day one. It's all serviced by sproof, complies with European data protection and is therefore also ideal for us lawyers."

Dr. Christian Zwick
Binder Grösswang

In terms of data protection, on the one hand the legal requirements in the sense of the DSGVO must be fulfilled and on the other hand the highest level of security must be guaranteed from an IT security perspective. The signature software provider sproof guarantees both by storing and processing the data exclusively in data centres within the European Union and avoiding any US reference. A deletion concept that is an integral part of the solution and an order data processing contract based on the EU template also guarantee the highest standard of data protection from a legal perspective.

Conclusion

The advantages of the digital signature are obvious: it is fast, simple and, above all, 100% secure. More and more lawyers are recognising this and are benefiting from the digital signature in their work. This is a clear trend that will continue in the coming years.

Why digital instead of analogue?

When do I need a qualified digital signature?

What is a signature style?

Can I make changes to the document after signing?

Is a signed document also valid when printed out?

About the author
Co-Founder at sproof
Fabian Knirsch is co-founder and CTO of sproof GmbH. He completed his doctorate in computer science at the University of Salzburg in 2018 and worked on the topics of security and privacy in research. He was then a UAS professor at the UAS Salzburg until 2022. Fabian is a self-confessed "IT security enthusiast" and is burning for the common mission to offer the central platform and interface for digital signing in Europe.

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