What is a digital signature and how do I use one?

What is a digital signature?

A digital signature is a convenient method of signing documents electronically. Like signing a paper document, an electronic signature can be used to validate the identity of the signee. Traditionally, this is accomplished by comparing a known signature, such as the signature on a driver’s license, to the signature on the document. Digital signatures can accomplish this in several ways, but are most commonly done using certificates that use a non-reversible mathematical algorithm.

A digital signature may be used when two parties agree to use a digital method of validating an individual’s identity, such as a contract to purchase goods or services. Digital signatures may also be required by certain government organizations when submitting documentation.

What types of digital signatures can be used at Wayne State?

The requirements for what defines an electronic signature can vary and may be stipulated by law, government regulations or other contractual commitments. Each individual situation should be reviewed for compliance. However, using any of the following methods are generally accepted ways of generating a digital signature:


  • Purpose built application- Applications that are used for managing a business process such as purchasing or managing requirements for research can be used to digital sign a document if the application uses Wayne SSO for authentication to the application. It is strongly recommended to also use a form of two-factor authentication such as DUO.


  • Digital certificate– Examples of this are signing a PDF using a certificate. Unless specifically stated as acceptable by all parties involved, self-signed certificates are not an approved for use in digital signatures. A trusted certificate can be obtained from C&IT by using this form or via any trusted third-party certificate authority. It is important that the private key never be shared and is secured at all times. If the private key is lost or stolen, it must be revoked and new one issued. 

While a convenient way to sign a document, an image of a traditional signature does not meet the standards of a digital signature. This method can still be used for informal signing of documents or used to represent a traditional signature.