Gatekeeping the ability to sign ones name

In my work, we have access to the full Adobe Acrobat project that allows us to fill in and properly sign a document and we are provided proper digital certificates. A properly signed document would invalidate the signature if the document were changed after signing. A proper certificate is cannot be forged by someone else, and that when applied to a document the signer cannot deny it came from him.

This is a tremendous convenience in my work place were we’re constantly being asked to sign things just to remain eligible to continue working there. Recalling the days when everything was on paper brings back nightmares. I was given forms that were photocopies of photocopies over many cycles so that the form was no longer crisp or even aligned with the paper. Even getting that form took time for someone to find and then to hand to me. Often enough, the form provided was outdated and no longer acceptable. After signing the document, I needed to give it to someone other than the person who handed me the form. Usually mail was used to move the paper. At the end the paper needed to be stored someplace safe in order to produce it at some unpredictable future date when someone would demand I produce my copy.

In the work place, the digital form-filling and signing is a definite benefit over paper. I like it. My employer likes it.

All is well in the world.

I have a home and I use contractors do work on my house. Typically, they would come with those stiff pads with triplicate carbon forms. When writing up the contract, they would write it out by hand in a generous blank area. Then they would hand it to me for my signature. At the end, he’d keep two copies and I’d have one. Watching this process, I observed how long it took him to write out what was typically just a couple sentences. He was writing carefully. Also, the actual handling of the paper is inconvenient. He has to add his copies to his growing pile of paper. I have take my copy and put it in a safe space at least until I’m satisfied the contract is finished.

Recently, I’ve been getting contracts or contract mods electronically. This would be ideal if I were at work. I would sign it with the appropriately capable software and with the appropriate certificate. Even if I were do to that, the certificate would not work for a home contractor. That work signature said it was signed by some random character string that represented my employee id. Also, the certificate root may not be one he would trust.

The ideal solution would be for me to acquire my own form-filling software with certificate-signing capability. Such software does exist, of course, for a subscription price amounting to at least $100 per year, usually much more. In addition, I would need to subscribe to my own signing certificate from a widely respected root. I need to subscribe to the service to keep the certificate valid for new signatures, and I would need to buy a new certificate each year after the old one expired.

The ability to sign a document now requires spending a couple hundred dollars in subscription fees. Lacking those subscriptions, you cannot sign anything.

In modern discourse, we talk about canceling people in the sense of denying them the ability to continue to participate in certain areas of society. This is primarily done by discrediting a person’s reputation or character. Once discredited, the desired groups would expel that individually. The ultimate goal of these efforts is to prevent that person doing anything. People carry out these campaigns through social media, but it is very effective because the groups defend their reputations on social media to the point that they cannot afford a bad character to tarnish their reputation.

The ultimate goal of canceling a person would be to remove their ability to sign their name. We are nearly at that point today. To sign documents digitally, I need a valid subscription to the appropriate software, and I need a valid certificate. I would lose my ability to sign a document if I lacked the money to pay for these subscriptions. Even when the subscription is paid, the publishers of the software or certificates can cancel my membership. I would be unable to sign anything.

We are not at that point today. I still have the option to print out the document, sign the print-out, scan the printout as an image file, and then send that file back.

Many years ago, I was content with this option, even though I couldn’t understand why the scanned copy of my signature would substitute for the actual inked signature of the paper that will likely end up being shredded. I bought my own home printer/scanner combination. I only sign a contract about once a year if even that often. After a couple years, something would not work right with the printer. It was cheaper and faster to just buy a new printer. After that one also failed a couple years later, I stopped that approach.

My current approach is to walk to the nearest office supply store and use their large printer scanner. I pay per page and the machine accepts USB drives, as well as online file repositories. The machine is always kept in good condition. I do not consider the walking to the store to be an inconvenience. I always grab any opportunity to go for a walk.

There were still times when I needed paper copies even for work. I am teleworking so I needed to do the same thing. When given such a document that needed a hard copy, I was delighted. I had an excuse to leave the house, and go for a walk, to complete this task.

In the past week or so, I had to sign a few documents for various reasons.

In one case involving work, I needed to fill out the form at home. The form involved filling out a lot of information and then to sign it. My initial instinct, and the one I should have followed, was to take the file to the office supply store, print out a paper copy, fill that out in ink, sign it, and then scan it back into a file, and send that. The problem is that I doubt the legibility of my hand writing any more, and I wanted this information typed. The old-fashioned solution would be to feed that paper into a typewriter and type it out that way. There is no such typewriter in that store but I had one at home. I would have to make two trips to complete this task. This is probably what I should have done.

Instead, I convinced myself that I should be able to sign it from personal software and personal certificates just like I do for other documents using company versions of same. The process for getting the software and certificates is fairly simple and from that point forward I can operate fully paperless from home just like I do at work. The fact that these requires monthly subscriptions stopped me. Although the subscriptions had to be paid annually, it was clearly stated as a monthly subscription. Given the current environment, there is that real possibility that the provider could decide to terminate my subscription and refund the balance for whatever reason they like.

I just now realized the full implications of digital signatures. Digital signatures are contingent of my having access to the means to sign digitally. That contingency does not exist for pen and paper signatures as long as I have a working hand and a working pen, the latter of which is usually offered by the one wanting the signature.

When we go fully digital, we will lose the ability to personally fill out and sign a document on our own. We need permission in the form of someone allowing us to use the appropriate software and the appropriate certificate. In both cases, the providers reserve the right to deny this service.

Someone else has power to deny me the ability to sign my name. They will exercise that power, perhaps not for me, but for someone. That person would lose his ability to sign anything.

The second example was another home project. The contractor sent me a contract modification via email and wanted my signature. This time I objected to proceeding this route. I asked him to bring the paper the next time he showed up, and I would sign it the old fashioned way. Ideally, I don’t want the computer print out. I want the triplicate carbon paper version where I get the third sheet for my record.

This system works well. In addition, this old system is actually the most appropriate. The contract is precisely between myself and the contractor. There is no need to involve third parties to permit us to use their software, or permit us to use certificates from their root.

I completely lost my enthusiasm for digital signatures for personal affairs. I still like using digital signatures for work because they are the ones who ultimately own the required software and certificates. Also, implicit in the work contract is their ability to cancel me at any time. I think it works well in work environments. In personal affairs, digital signatures are entirely inappropriate.

During my research for how to properly sign my own documents, I came across a video ad showing the use of the software for a personal service. The illustration involved a contractor that offered a dog walking service, and showed him writing up a contract to walk one particular dog. The dog owner reviewed the digital document and pointed out that the dog’s name was misspelled. The contractor then sent back the corrected name and the dog owner signed the contract. The dog would now be walked.

Perhaps it was that animation that changed my mind about my much more serious contract. The idea of using a digitally signed for a contract for walking a dog walking service. That kind of service should be made over a handshake. Any doubt about the trustworthiness of the parties could be resolved with a simple sheet of paper with handwritten one-line description of the service and the two signatures. It is ludicrous to involve third parties to produce and sign such a contract. I looked at my far more substantial contract and thought the same way. I realize they do not fully trust me, and I do not fully trust them, but I think this lack of trust could be solved simply with the triplicate handwritten contracts as I have always done.

To be fair, I think this contractor expected me to have my own home printer and scanner to complete the signature process. The copy he sent me was not digitally signed from his end. I no longer have such a convenience, and I still do not trust the validity of a scanned signature. I just reached a point where I felt that this is business that properly should be done in triplicate carbon paper. It is a contract solely between myself and the contractor.

It is probably the current pandemic situation that lead me to this revelation of the more appropriateness of the old fashioned approach of handwritten contracts between individuals. I have spent the last year working from home, saving the business the concern about their building needing thorough sanitization every time someone walks in. As a result, I was doing all work activities in the familiar surroundings of my own home. When someone personal comes up, it is natural to think I should handle it just like I handle things at work. When someone asks me for a signature, I expect to get a PDF form with the fields properly set up for accepting text and the special field for “sign here” that launches the certificate signing utility. This was my first instinct when I received the contract modification for my home project: let me do it the same way I sign a document for work.

The pandemic situation is turning our personal lives into corporate ones. To enter into personal contracts, we have to become like a miniature version of a corporation. We have to acquire the tools that sign documents. We also have to maintain good corporate reputation in order to maintain approval by the provider of those signature services. For those like myself who were able to telework from home, the experience has conditioned us to replace our personal identity with a corporate one. To be able to sign anything, we need to maintain a good subscription relationship with the providers of the tools that make the signature possible. This is not absolutely true right now, we can still sign on physical paper. My point is that we’re being conditioned into thinking that the digital approach is always the more desired approach, even if we want a contract for someone to walk our dog.


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