What are qualified electronic signatures? Are they by definition better than other types of electronic signatures?
'Qualified signature' is a common legal shorthand for a specific category of electronic signatures to which European e-signature rules attach a specific legal effect. Namely, it refers to electronic signatures that meet the requirements of Article 5.1 of the eSignatures Directive, i.e. "advanced electronic signatures which are based on a qualified certificate and which are created by a secure-signature-creation device". In practical terms, it relates to PKI based e-signatures for which the signature certificate and the device used to create the signature meet certain quality requirements.
If the signatures satisfy these quality requirements, the Directive states that they:
- satisfy the legal requirements of a signature in relation to data in electronic form in the same manner as a handwritten signature satisfies those requirements in relation to paper-based data; and
- are admissible as evidence in legal proceedings.
Thus, the main benefit of qualified eSignatures is that they can benefit from an automatic legal equivalence to hand written signatures across the European Union. Signatures created using the Belgian eID card are generally accepted to be qualified signatures.
This doesn't imply that such signatures are necessarily 'better', more reliable, or that they are the only way to create a legally valid signature. On the contrary, in most contexts no specific legal requirements apply, and other types of electronic signatures can also be used to validly sign electronic documents. In those cases, it will be necessary to assess what the characteristics of the electronic signature are, and whether it offers sufficient guarantees with respect to authenticity and integrity to be acceptable for the specific context in which it is used. The main benefit of a qualified signature is that this assessment is no longer necessary - a qualified signature is automatically valid for any context - and that the qualified status of an electronic signature applies across the EU.