Sign (Click) Here: Using Digital Signatures on Professional Documents

By Jim Crume PLS, MS, CFedS
 
Editor’s note: Digital signatures and seals are loved by some and hated by others, and they’re rapidly gaining acceptance. Nearly every state in the country have okayed their use for professional engineering and surveying documents—but not necessarily at the local jurisdiction or agency level. Jim Crume, a pioneer in the use of digital signatures for professional documents in Arizona, offers the following primer on how digital signatures and seals work and how easy they are to use.
 
Technology is rapidly changing all around us. As soon as you purchase the latest gadget, a new version is available by the time you get home. We have all experienced this technological change on a day-to-day basis, both in our professional and private lives.
 
The tools that we use as professionals have also been part of the advancements in technology. Our survey equipment has come a long way since the days of the compass, transit, and chain. I personally have seen an evolution from the early days of theodolites and EDMs to GPS technology, from plain tables to advanced computers/tablets, and from trigonometric tables to advanced calculators and smartphones. I often give my survey crews a hard time by telling them that they are spoiled with all of the latest gadgets, especially when they start whining about how hard it is to survey with the modern GPS equipment. They will look back some day and wonder how they ever got anything done with the current GPS equipment. I have previously made a prediction that the need of a GPS base station will be a thing of the past. We are seeing that somewhat come true with the Real Time Networks (RTN) infrastructure that is well developed across the country. In the next ten years, RTN will probably be old technology.
 
There is a strong push under way to move from a paper environment to a digital environment. I have been intrigued with technological improvements over the years and have embraced working in the digital cloud environment. I jump at the chance to stay on the cutting edge when new tools become available that make my job faster and better. I am usually the first one to upgrade my windows operating system to the latest release.
 
The method that we use to sign and seal our professional documents has not changed as much as other technologies. The same method has been in place ever since the organization of state boards of technical registration for each of the states. At that time, a signatory method was instituted using a circular rubber stamp of a defined diameter with the registrant’s discipline such as Professional Engineer, Professional Land Survey, Registered Land Surveyor, and the registrant’s name and registration number. A handwritten signature and date would then be added, completing the signed and sealed process. This method is the recognized seal of approval and authorization that is still in use today (Figure 1).
 
It took many years before the state registration boards authorized a computer-generated seal that could be added to drawings, even with the advancements in CAD. The wheels of progress really move slowly for some things. I am sure that all of us have experienced the use of the rubber stamp taking a long time to dry when sealing final Mylar drawings. You have to be real careful to let the seal dry before signing and placing anything on top of the drawing. I can’t remember how many times I have had to erase and re-stamp a drawing because someone laid something on a signed Mylar and smeared the seal and signature. 
 
Due to my strong interest in finding better methods to do my job, I knew there had to be a process to get my handwritten signature into CAD so that it would plot cleanly and would dry at the same time as the rest of the plotted inked drawing. It really wasn’t that difficult to come up with a method to add a facsimile of my handwritten signature to my CAD drawing files. The only problem with this method is, at that time, the state registration board would not allow a facsimile of the signature. They stated that it had to be a “wet seal,” which is a frequently misused term because you had to wait for the seal to dry before you could handle the drawing, therefore making it really not a wet seal in the literal sense. This “wet seal” philosophy trickled down to other governing agencies and has been a long-standing requirement. It is hard to imagine that even today there are some agencies that still require a “wet seal.” 
 
Needless to say, I was super excited when the Arizona State Board of Technical Registration (ASBTR) adopted a “Substantive Policy” on June 17, 2002 regarding the “Use of Electronic Seals and Signatures” on professional documents. The legal groundwork had been written into the Arizona Revised Statues (A.R.S.), years earlier, allowing the use of digital signatures for all executed documents that require an authorized signature.
 
Starting in the fall of 2002, the AZBTR began holding seminars related to the use of digital signatures. I attended the very first seminar. I was anxious to get started using this new technology. During the seminar, there were many that had security concerns. The fear was that someone would be able to duplicate their signature and record unauthorized surveys.. I pointed out that with today’s technology that even our handwritten signature can be forged quite easily. It did not calm their fears. 
 
When the EDM became available, many people would measure the distance with the EDM between two points, then break out the chain and measure it again just to verify that the EDM was working properly. The same can be said when GPS came out: the EDM was used by many to verify the GPS values until they became comfortable with that new technology.
 
With the adoption of the substantive policy, the AZBTR now allowed the use of digital signatures but had no idea how to do it. I volunteered to be the pioneer on figuring out how to create digital signatures on professional documents. I worked closely with the surveyor member of the board and attorney of the AZBTR to get through the logistics and come up with a method and software that could be used to generate digital signatures.
 
The first challenge was to determine what software met the digital signature requirements as defined in the A.R.S. A certificate of authority is required, and at the time VeriSign was the only one that had a plug-in for Adobe Acrobat for PDF that met those requirements. Today there are several third-party applications, including Adobe Acrobat, that are available for creating PDFs that contain a “self signature” that meets the federal and state certificate of authority requirements. The software must create a private and public key of a digital signature. Online services such as VeriSign are available to serve as a public key repository. 
 
The next step was to determine how to add a digital signature to a PDF created from CAD, word processing, or other software. Most software today will create a PDF as a built-in function. There are also many printer drivers that will create a PDF.
 
In the beginning, the digital signature style in Adobe Acrobat was limited in its design and function. I experimented with creating a hybrid of the circular seal and digital signature, but that did not work out well. The format that Adobe Acrobat had available at the time obscured the seal when you sign it. My final design did not incorporate the traditional circular seal. 
 
Breaking away from a long-standing tradition was on the cutting edge and met with some resistance from several agencies when submitting digitally signed documents for review and recording. It took many years before many recording offices would record results of surveys, etc. with a digital signature due to the “wet seal” philosophy. Today, digital signatures are the preferred method for signed documents by Maricopa county recorder’s office and have instituted online submittals of digitally signed PDFs. 
 

Digital Signature Types


Today, there are many more options available for creating digital signatures in PDF software.

I use three distinct signatures when I sign a PDF:
 
I use the Style 1 type signature on non-professional documents such as mortgages, leases, letters, and so forth (Figure 2). 
 
I use the Style 2 type on professional correspondences, fee proposals, and so forth that do not require a seal (Figure 3). I use this one on a daily basis. I prefer having the date stamp with the signature when given that option.
 
Style 3 has two parts. The first part (Figure 4) is the electronic seal (synonymous to the rubber stamp) for the signature that contains the discipline, registration number, expiration date, the words “ELECTRONIC SEAL,” and the web address for the AZBTR. I also include the Certified Federal Surveyor number and expiration date on surveys that this would apply to. I have this electronic seal in a cell library that I use in CAD drawings and a Word template that I insert into Word documents such as legal descriptions. With this type of electronic seal, there are no size restrictions as with the circular seal. The electronic seal can easily be inserted into many types of documents.
 
Once the CAD and/or Word document has been prepared, I then create a PDF that can be digitally signed.
 
The second part (Figure 5) is the digital signature that is created in PDF software such as Adobe Acrobat. I have used Adobe Acrobat, PDF-XChange Viewer, and Nitro, and they all have the necessary tools to create digital signatures. There are many features in each of these software applications that can be turned on and off. I turn on only a few of the features in order to minimize the area required for the digital signature portion of the final executed PDF.
 

Production Process

 
Once you have created a digital signature, all that is left is to open the PDF file, zoom into the area that contains the electronic seal, go to the digital signature tool in your PDF software, draw a box in the PDF where you want the digital seal to appear (Figure 6), and save the file when instructed to do so. I usually add the words “_signed” to the file name, such as “filename_signed.pdf.”
 
This file is now my original that I store in the project folder and cloud locations. I don’t store hard copies of my signed plats, results of survey, etc. anymore. Hard copies take up a lot of room and are expensive to keep due to the cabinets required to store them in. It is time-consuming searching for hard copies, especially ones that are years old. I personally have migrated to digital documents only with cloud storage. 
 
Since the fall of 2002, I have digitally signed my documents and emailed them to my clients and agencies for review. When they open the document, they have the option to click on the digital seal to validate the signature. In order for them to validate the signature, I will forward to them my public key that is generated by the PDF software. They will then install the public key into their PDF reader. When the digital signature is clicked on, the signature summary will display showing my certificate (Figure 7).
 
The signature summary will validate my signature as well as provide alerts if the document has been altered. If the PDF has been altered, they can forward it to me and I can perform a document check with the archived original using comparison tools in the PDF software. I can also forward them another copy of the original. There is no method to quickly check a traditional hard copy to see if it has been tampered with. My experience is that a digitally signed PDF is much more secure than the traditional “wet seal” on hard copies. I have had the unfortunate experience of a former boss altering a final signed Results of Survey and forwarding it to a client without my knowledge. I found out months later and confronted my former boss. The alteration was minor, which I would have agreed to, but the point is that it happened. I feel much more secure using digitally signed PDFs and the built in security features that are part of this electronic format.
 
I encourage other professionals to use digital signatures whenever the subject comes up. It is difficult getting them to migrate from the traditional circular seal and “wet seal” philosophy. Believe it or not, some still use a rubber stamp and have not migrated to a now-authorized CAD-generated seal or facsimile of their handwritten signature. It is my hope that this article will encourage other professionals to take the leap of faith and move into the digital signature environment. It is no longer the wave of the future; it is here now and I am proud to have been a part of that development.
 

Sidebar:

Yes – No – Sort of …

Nearly every state has okayed the use of digital signatures for professional documents, but that does not mean it is mandatory, and in many cases digital signatures and seals have not been adopted at the local level (e.g. county plat filing requirements). We set out to make a comprehensive list of where digital signatures and seals were authorized for professional surveying and engineering documents, only to find that each state handles it in a different manner. In some the digital seal is okay but the signature is not, and some states have okayed for professional documents but engineering and surveying are exceptions.
 
There are surveyors who are adamantly opposed to digital signatures, others who swear by them, and still others who are not sure (and may do not care) if their state or locality accepts them. But almost without exception the use of digital signatures is not (at this time) mandatory. A fairly comprehensive list of P.E. Board requirements by state (as of 2010) was compiled by ARX (an electronic signature and certificate vendor):

[www.arx.com/files/DOCUMENTS/U.S.-States-PE-Board-Regulations.pdf], and since 2010 several states such as Pennsylvania have been working on authorizing their use.
 
While individual states have historically developed their own laws and codes completely independent of other states, that does not mean they are not open to the notion of seeking some level of uniformity, especially when it comes to a subject like digital signatures that can have interstate commerce and contracting repercussions. A National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (around since 1892) developed the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) in 1999, and since then 47 states and some U.S. territories have enacted it. Congress enacted the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN) for similar reasons.
 
Initiatives like the UETA are not top-down mandates, but rather a foundation that states can choose to use to develop uniform elements for their own laws and codes in implementing such things as digital signatures/seals for professional surveying and engineering.

Jim Crume, PLS, MS, CFedS has several decades of computer programming experience related to CAD and Cogo. He has also authored surveying mathematics books for the Kindle and other digital formats as well as articles on such subjects as mineral surveys and spiral offset curves.
 
 



 
 

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