Understanding Notary Technology: eSeals, eSignatures And Digital Certificates
By David Thun on March 18, 2020

(Originally published in the March 2020 issue of The National Notary magazine.)

Notarization used to be simple: the signer appears before the Notary with a signed paper document; the Notary identifies the signer; the Notary completes the notarization, signs with an ink pen and affixes a physical seal impression.

It’s not that simple anymore.

Today, Notaries in many states are authorized to notarize electronic documents, sign with a signature pad or by clicking a button on a computer screen. Notarizations can not only be done without paper (aka “In Person Electronic Notarizations” or “iPEN”), but states permitting remote online notarization (aka “RON”) even authorize the Notary and signer to interact remotely while hundreds or even thousands of miles apart.

As technology plays an increasingly important role in notarizations, many states are requiring Notaries to obtain and use electronic signatures, electronic seals and digital certificates in order to perform iPENs or RONs. But if you aren’t deeply versed in tech-speak, understanding what these different tools do, how to use them and how to make sure they comply with your state’s Notary laws can be extremely confusing. In this article, we’ll look at three tools used for paperless notarizations — electronic seals, electronic signatures, and digital certificates — explain what they do and answer some of the most confusing questions they raise for Notaries.

Electronic Notary Seals
Of these three types of electronic tools, an electronic seal is perhaps the easiest to understand. Basically, an electronic seal serves the same purpose for electronic documents that an ink seal or embosser does for paper — it shows the document was notarized and provides information about the Notary who did it.

Depending on individual state laws, an electronic seal could take different forms. It might be an electronic image such as a JPEG, PDF or other file format. But in general, the seal must include similar information to a physical seal. When a notarized electronic document is opened, information about the Notary contained in the electronic seal should be readily visible to the person viewing the document.

“What we specify is that the electronic seal must look virtually the same as a tangible, physical seal when viewing an electronic document,” said Lori Hamm, Notary Program Specialist with the Montana Secretary of State’s office. Hamm added that Montana lawmakers wanted to make sure that anyone viewing a notarized electronic document could easily see that the document has been notarized.

Just as with traditional seals, a Notary must take steps to secure the seal and make sure no one else can access and use the seal without the Notary’s knowledge. Some Notaries keep their eSeal stored on an approved technology platform’s server accessible only with the correct password. Others might choose to store the seal on their personal computer’s hard drive. However the eSeal is stored, it needs to be protected. “Electronic seals follow the same rules and guidelines as physical seals in terms of issuing and securing them,” Hamm said.

Notaries And Electronic Signatures
Just as an electronic seal is the equivalent of a physical ink stamp or embosser, an electronic signature serves the same function as the Notary’s handwritten signature. An electronic signature can take many forms — an image of a handwritten signature affixed to the document, a signature created by writing on an electronic signing pad or even just clicking an “Accept” button on a computer screen.

“It’s easiest if you think about what Notaries do in the paper world first. The same logic applies to the electronic means for performing a notarization,” said Tim Reiniger, an expert on information governance law and policy and the director of Timothy Reiniger LLC in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Just as a handwritten signature and physical seal indicate that a traditional pen and paper notarization was completed and legally establish the genuineness of the underlying document, when an electronic document is opened, the recipient sees the Notary’s electronic signature and seal information attached to the document and knows it can be legally relied upon in court or for government filing purposes.

However, a significant difference between paper documents and electronic documents is that it is much easier for someone to alter an electronic document undetected. An eDocument’s text can be changed in seconds, and many people even have the capability to alter, add or remove images from an eDocument easily using software widely available to the public. So how can someone know if a notarized electronic document has been tampered with? That’s where digital certificates come in.

Notaries And Digital Certificates
Digital certificates are perhaps the most important — and most confusing — tool used for electronic notarizations. A digital certificate doesn’t have a true equivalent in the traditional world of paper notarizations.

Despite the name, a digital certificate has nothing to do with Notary certificate wording. Though digital certificates are sometimes called “digital signatures” they are different from the electronic signatures described above.

A digital certificate performs two key functions — it verifies the identity of the Notary who affixed the electronic signature and seal on the notarized document, and it makes the document “tamper-evident.” Once a digital certificate is applied, if anyone attempts to alter the document’s contents, the Notary’s electronic signature, or the Notary’s electronic seal, the document will clearly indicate to anyone that opens it that changes have been made since the notarization was completed. A digital certificate is normally the last tool used when notarizing an electronic document, after the Notary’s electronic seal and signature are applied.

“People often think everything related to a document is visual, but a digital certificate is not,” said Darcy Mayer, chief technology officer for DocVerify, a remote online notarization technology provider. “It’s the cryptographic portion of a document that’s there, but not visible.”

Digital certificates are normally issued by a trusted issuing authority for a limited period of time and must be periodically renewed over a period ranging from 1 to 5 years. For example, digital certificates sold by the NNA are renewed either after 1 year or 3 years, which is standard for the ID technology industry, and meets the requirements for all states that authorize RON.

If a Notary needs a digital certificate to perform iPEN or RON notarizations, the Notary can obtain a digital certificate directly from the trusted issuing authority. Notaries can also obtain digital certificates through authorized vendors such as the NNA or through remote notarization technology providers such as DocVerify, which provides and maintains digital certificates for Notaries who use their platform to perform remote online notarizations.

“In our case, we (DocVerify) take on the onus and maintain the digital certificate securely with password protected access for the Notary,” Mayer said. “Our employees can’t access or decrypt the files. We take on the responsibility to secure it for the Notary.”

While it’s possible for a Notary to obtain more than one digital certificate, Mayer said a single digital certificate can be used across multiple notarization technology platforms, so it’s simpler and more secure for a Notary to use only one. Also, some states, such as Texas, require Notaries to upload their digital certificate to a state web portal so officials can verify it, and only one digital certificate can be associated with each remote Notary commission application, said Robert Sumners, director of Government Filings with the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Remote online notarization is still evolving in many states, and therefore the requirements for using digital certificates and other technology for iPEN or RON may change in the future. But for now, if Notaries have questions they can contact the NNA, their state Notary agency or a technology provider they are signed up with for assistance.

David Thun is an Associate Editor at the National Notary Association.