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Will Electronic Signatures Kill the Fax? No.

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May 24, 2013

Will Electronic Signatures Kill the Fax? No.

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Contributor

One of main reasons that fax machines continue to play an important role in offices across the world is because signatures sent by fax legally hold up in court. Fax is still the way to send important documents where authenticity matters.

With the rise of digital signatures, however, is this last great use of the fax machine finally coming to a close?

While on the face of it many of us might be tempted to say yes and write the obituary for the trusty fax machine, the never-say-die fax industry might scrape by yet again.

That’s because of two factors: Fax machines are a mature technology both socially and technologically, and there’s a lot of weight behind the fax as a trusted business process.

Digital signatures work by using special software to obtain a hash (mathematical summary) of the contract being signed, then the signer’s software uses a private key that the signer has previously obtained from a public-private key authority to encrypt the hash. The encrypted hash becomes the digital signature of the message.

It some countries this is a legally valid method of signing documents. But the trick is that it isn’t legally recognized everywhere yet, whereas fax has been around long enough to get proper legislation making it a safe way to legally sign something.

So at least for the time being, fax is a safer legally binding method.

Then there is the question of business processes.

“Deploying such functionality in medium to large enterprises and making the process easy for 100’s or 1000’s of workers to manage could pose some challenges,” noted Mark D. Malone in a blog post last year. He suggested that faxes have the advantage because workflows are already set.

Ironically, electronic signatures could even help keep fax alive a little longer. Because while traditional, PSTN-based faxing is legally binding, fax-over-IP (FoIP) is legally iffy by some accounts. But electronic signature technology could help.

Traditional fax technology goes through a dedicated telephone line and requires the inclusion of the sender’s telephone number, which helps with authentication. But FoIP travels over the Internet and, in some instances, lacks the identification safeguard.

This authentication issue with FoIP can eventually be solved with use of electronic signature technology, however.

The need for an electronic signature on a fax defeats the advantage of a fax in many respects, but not completely—the business process angle still remains.

So while there may come a day when fax technology is ultimately retired, that day will not come at the hand of electronic signatures.

Edited by Blaise McNamee

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