The use of digital signatures and online verification of documents has touched a new high after the onset of the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has put the focus on digital services, with even traditional businesses and education moving online. An oft-overlooked aspect of this transition is document authentication, which has largely been a physical process so far.
The technology to authenticate documents has existed for a while, but the pandemic has taken its adoption to new highs.
Consider the DigiLocker, one of the key initiatives under the government’s Digital India plan, which allows citizens to store certificates and official documents — such as birth certificates, university degrees and income tax documents — in an online digital format.
Launched in 2015-16, DigiLocker was envisaged as a central repository for storing all documents, one where registered users would have access control. Its use has been on the rise, but in the June-August period last year, the number of user registrations shot up from under 40 million to 45 million.
“Last year, around this time (March-April), we were adding about 20,000 users per day. Now, we’re adding about 100,000 sign-ups per day. It has scalable architecture and we hope it becomes the default repository for all government certificates,” says Abhishek Singh, president and CEO of the National e-Governance Division under the ministry of electronics and information technology, which manages DigiLocker.
“DigiLocker allows API-level integration of all your documents. When Delhi University was doing admissions last year, students were not able to come to college to submit their mark sheets and certificates. So we enabled API-level verification. As many as 100,000 students got admission in DU this time without submitting any physical documents,” says Singh.
API, or application programming interface, helps the transfer of data between one software product and another. The government has an open API policy, which is intended to promote the efficient sharing of data among data owners and inter-and intra-governmental agencies.
DigiLocker has also been used by the Karnataka police to verify class 10 and 12 certificates for recruitment of constables. With lakhs of applications, it would have taken six months or more to physically verify certificates. “DigiLocker enabled the digital verification of certificates and the police department saved seven to eight months in the recruitment process,” says Singh.
An obvious benefit of having faster transfer of data among departments is saving time, but an efficient API also reduces costs.
In February this year, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India advised all insurance companies to issue digital insurance policies via DigiLocker. The National Academic Depository (NAD), an online storehouse of academic awards, has also made DigiLocker the sole repository of these awards. The National Digital Health Mission, launched last year, too, uses DigiLocker.
Helped by these initiatives, Singh reckons that DigiLocker could reach 80 million registered users by the end of this year.
A 2019 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India noted some challenges in the way of more widespread adoption of DigiLocker. These include low faith in documents stored in the cloud, the quality of internet availability across the country, and inadequate digital literacy.
The pandemic-induced lockdowns, coupled with the government’s push towards making DigiLocker a more common way of storing documents, as well as the improved availability of internet data connections, has remedied some of these challenges.
Signing documents digitally
Digital document signing also grew impressively last year. Research from Adobe recently found that young people were driving the growth in digital document use and e-signatures. In 2020, however, the increase was seen across all age groups, with many e-signing for the first time in the wake of the pandemic.
Adobe Digital Insights surveyed 4,000 consumers, including over 1,000 from the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, on how they used e-signatures following the onset of Covid-19.
Seventy-six per cent of the APAC respondents said they e-signed more documents in the last six months of 2020 compared to late 2019 and early 2020. The adoption was highest among millennials (61 per cent). Fifty-three per cent said they e-signed for the first time last year, mainly because they did not have the option in the past.
India had the highest proportion of respondents (62 per cent) who e-signed for the first time in 2020. Insurance policies and health care registrations were among the most common documents to be e-signed.
“The global pandemic changed what it means to be productive,” says Girish Balachandran, director, digital media, Adobe India, in a statement. “While the shift from paper to digital has been underway since PDF was introduced more than 30 years ago, 2020 was a tipping point. Digital documents have become the currency of business productivity — the centrepiece of how businesses, governments and consumers communicate, collaborate and transact, thereby setting the agenda for the future economy.”
According to an Adobe and Trilegal white paper on electronic signatures, Indian law recognises digital and electronic signatures. Digital signatures are generated by an “asymmetric crypto-system and hash function”. Under this, a person signing digitally is issued a one to two-year certificate-based digital ID stored on a USB token, which is used along with a personal PIN to sign a document. In general, digital signatures are considered more tamper-proof. According to Singh, e-signatures have an efficiency of 98 per cent.