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Digital Signatures: Protecting the Data Integrity of Electronic Transcripts

Posted by Cleveland Reporting Partners

When we talk about digitally signed documents (or transcripts), we are talking about much more than just an electronic image of a signature; and a lot of times an electronic image of a signature that is pasted onto a document is mistakenly taken for a valid digital signature. If you’re confused already, you’re not alone.

“Electronic signatures” and “digital signatures” are terms that oftentimes are used interchangeably but in reality are very different. In today’s legal industry, where hardcopy transcripts are extremely rare and electronic transcripts have replaced them as the standard, it is crucial to understand and recognize the difference to be absolutely certain that the data integrity of the transcripts you receive from your court reporter has not been compromised.

ELECTRONIC VS. DIGITAL SIGNATURES

ELECTRONIC SIGNATURES:  An electronic signature is an image of a signature, most often a .jpg, that is inserted or pasted onto a document on a signature line to give the appearance that a document has been signed. Anyone with a camera phone can take a picture of a person’s signature and then paste this image onto any document. Because of this, as you may have guessed, there is no validity to this signature on electronic documents whatsoever. It is purely cosmetic, and in no way makes a document official or binding.

DIGITAL SIGNATURES:  A digital signature is a cryptographic layer of validation and security that is applied to a document to ensure the document’s authentication and integrity. When a person applies his or her digital signature to a document, the receiver can be certain that the entire document was created by the owner of the digital signature, and that no part of the document was altered in any way in transit. The digital signature key will provide a time stamp as to when the document was signed and encrypts the document so that it cannot be altered. Now, a digital signature may have an element of an electronic signature in that a cosmetic image of the signer’s signature may be placed upon a signature line, the difference being that that electronic signature’s validity is backed up by the digital signature key that encrypts the document.

An easy way to think about this is to use the analogy of US currency. When the Federal Reserve prints paper money, meaning and value is only given to this currency if it is represented that the paper money is backed by gold or silver reserves. When currency is printed without the backing of the precious metals, it loses its value and basically becomes meaningless. So you can look at an electronic signature with no digital encryption as being analogous to counterfeit currency; having no validity, value or meaning.

DIGITAL SIGNATURES AND ELECTRONIC TRANSCRIPTS

Now that you understand the difference between electronic and digital signatures, it is important to understand how this applies to the certified electronic deposition or trial transcripts you receive from your court reporter. Now, your court reporter or reporting firm should be sending you several file formats for your use for copying and pasting to aid in your work product, but at least one of the files you receive should be encrypted and meet the following characteristics of data integrity and authentication.

The digital signature footprint should be easily accessible and visible with a simple click of the mouse. In the example below, by clicking anywhere on the certificate page of the transcript, a dialogue box appears providing a time stamp of when the transcript was signed, and the name of the owner of the signature key should appear.

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The digital signature footprint should be verifiable with another click. After clicking on the “Verify Signature” box in the example above, a second dialogue box appears, providing a second layer of data protection and authenticity.

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In the two images above, you can see that the cosmetic electronic signature’s validity is backed by the digital signature footprint dialogue boxes, verifying the authenticity and data integrity of the entire document.

THE PEACE OF MIND OF DATA INTEGRITY

One of the most critical aspects of discovery in any case is testimony, and it is the responsibility of your court reporter to capture and preserve the testimony. However, in today’s digital world, it is also critical for your court reporter to encrypt the electronic transcripts you purchase from them and validate the authenticity and integrity of the transcripts to ensure that the testimony has not been tampered with. Therefore, make sure you are working with court reporters and court reporting firms who digitally sign their certificate pages to give you the peace of mind that the testimony elicited in discovery is without a doubt preserved and protected.

You may also like: Getting the Most Out of E-Transcripts Without a Westlaw Subscription.

In another article, we discuss 9 attributes of exceptional court reporters in 2016.

About the Author:

Todd L. Persson has been serving the Cleveland legal community as a court reporter since 2002 and is a Co-Founder of Cleveland-based litigation support firm Cleveland Reporting Partners, LLC. He has spoken on the future of court reporting and technology on the Stenographers World Radio national podcast, has had blogs featured nationally by the National Court Reporters Association and the American Translators Association, and has contributed content to the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Journal. To read Todd’s full bio, visit our Partners page. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.

CRP Blog Editors in Chief:

Grace Hilpert-Roach has been serving the Cleveland legal community as a court reporter since 1992 and is a Co-Founder of Cleveland Reporting Partners, LLC. To read Grace’s full bio, visit our Partners Page. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Christine Zarife Green has been serving the Cleveland legal community as a court reporter since 2008 and is a Co-Founder of Cleveland Reporting Partners, LLC. To read Christine’s full bio, visit our Partners Page. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

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