Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Modern techniques to verify documents communicated online

The question of verifying a handwritten signature has become the subject of a national debate in India. Visit
The question concerns a resignation letter sent by Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, a candidate for election as President of India, to the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Kolkata. The resignation is from the post of Chairman, ISI. Under Indian law, a candidate for the President’s position should not be holding such a post on the day of nomination. The leading opposition party, BJP, and another candidate Mr. P A Sangma, have questioned if the signature on the resignation letter is a genuine one.

On reading this, my thoughts went back to my blog posting dated Saturday, March 11, 2006, titled Is handwriting really accurate in identifying people”? This had appeared in my blog
Let us go beyond the signature that has received a lot of media attention now. Ensuring the verifiability of signatures and their time and date is of great importance to any economy. We cannot burden courts by having them spend days on end listening to arguments on such questions.

Handwritten signatures are no solution to this problem except credible witnesses testify to the signing and handing over of the document to the recipient. (Of course, you cannot ask that this procedure should be adopted for resignation letters!) My blog post mentioned above discussed the unreliability of handwriting recognition. It quoted a judgment of the US Supreme Court which referred to a paper authored by an expert, which gives the results of a study showing experts make errors in approximately 7% of their judgments and non-experts err approximately thirty eight percent of the time!

Sophisticated technology is in use in India by the Income Tax Dept and all banks for online verification. When a bank pays you interest on a term deposit, it has to meet a legal requirement – to deduct a specified percentage of the amount due to you and pay it to the account of the Income Tax Dept, registering the payment with the National Securities Depository (NSDL) Ltd. NSDL is an information technology service provider with a specialization in security for online transactions.

Yesterday I went to my bank to ask for a certificate stating the amount deducted from me and transferred to the Income Tax Dept. The bank officer who handled this request explained to me that they can no longer issue such a certificate themselves. Instead, they have to download the statement form NSDL, which keeps track of all income tax payments registered with it.

Technically, NSDL could introduce in future a system to address the problems of registering and time-stamping documents. Anyone sending an online communication through this system to someone else could have the transmission registered online with NSDL. The sending party would identify himself to NSDL through one or more passwords or a digital signature. The recipient would be identified by the email address given to NSDL to forward the communication. All NSDL would need to do is to send both the sender and recipient a copy of the communication digitally signed by itself. This would serve as an authentication of the message to the recipient and as a receipt to the sender. It is a trivial matter to verify a digital signature with the right software at any time, now or in the future. NSDL does not need to store the communication for future verification at all, as the technology verifies the document if either of the transacting parties produces a machine-readable copy.

I hope that the current high profile dispute would trigger an implementation of a national communication registry. It would contribute an improvement to the velocity of business in India, earn its own costs and turn in a handsome profit!

Srinivasan Ramani 


Amelia said...

Its true that hand written signatures are hard to verify and is a very time consuming task. These days several other tools and techniques are available to verify the documents communicated online. One of the most promising and effective technique is digital signatures.
digital signature certificate

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Digital signatures have their use. However, the fact is that an industry has developed, which makes acquisition of necessary capability and use of digital signatures a time-consuming and expensive ritual. That is why there is very little use of digital signatures by the average computer user. Simpler means of authenticating emails and documents exchanged online do have to be investigated.
Srinivasan Ramani