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INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY - COST AND ATTITUDE THE BIGGEST BARRIERS, EXPERTS SAY

Speedy e-signatures slow to catch on

MOST OF the time, going to Slovak state offices means waiting in long queues and dealing with overworked-looking bureaucrats.
Using electronic signatures, an alternative to handwritten signatures with just as much legal power, could spare a business owner or an individual from this experience.

E-signatures could spare people from waiting in long lines at government offices.
photo: ČTK

MOST OF the time, going to Slovak state offices means waiting in long queues and dealing with overworked-looking bureaucrats.

Using electronic signatures, an alternative to handwritten signatures with just as much legal power, could spare a business owner or an individual from this experience. But in Slovakia, there are still only a few offices accepting e-signatures, and few business owners and even fewer individuals using it.

The law on e-signatures defines two terms: electronic signature and qualified electronic signature. To be able to use an electronic signature, businesses or individuals must buy a certificate at a certification authority and the necessary equipment and software.

A qualified electronic signature is equivalent to a legally-binding handwritten signature. In this case, the certificate must be qualified and issued by an accredited certification authority registered by the National Security Bureau. The equipment and the software must be approved by the bureau as well.

State administration bodies usually require a legally-binding qualified electronic signature in e-communications with businesses or individuals. A simple electronic signature, often called a commercial or personal e-signature, can be used for signing e-mail messages, text or PDF documents, invoices, medical and technical reports, meeting memos and so on. This commercial electronic signature does not have any legal power, but it ensures that the signed documents will not be modified by an unauthorised person.

While the convenience of e-signatures is undeniable, they still aren't widely used in Slovakia.

"The basic barrier against the use of electronic signature, and mainly qualified electronic signature, in Slovakia is the fact that it is still relatively financially demanding and the possibilities to use it are still limited," Ivica Hricová, PR manager of the Disig accredited certificate authority, told The Slovak Spectator.

Currently, it is only possible to use qualified e-signatures in communications with three state administration bodies, Hricová said: the Tax Office, Commercial Registry and Customs Directorate.

About 14.6 percent of businesses in Slovakia use digital signatures for authentication, while the EU25 average is 14.3 percent, said Peter Krauspe from Prvá Slovenská Certifikačná Autorita (PSCA), an accredited authority.

"This puts Slovakia in seventh place in the EU," he said. "It is not ideal, however, we are not the worst."

Krauspe added that apart from authentication, companies do very little e-commerce and e-business that would require electronic signatures.

Individual citizens use e-signatures much less often, Krauspe said.

"There is a great imbalance in Slovakia - we are above the average in the area of expert skills, while we are one of the worst in Europe in the area of basic knowledge," he told The Slovak Spectator.

As there are very few opportunities to use e-signatures for state administration bodies, most citizens are not willing to spend money to use it.

"The investment into the hardware and software necessary for the qualified electronic signature seems little profitable, in fact useless for citizens," said Krauspe.

But other offices, such as the registry for self-employed people and the cadastre (real estate registry) administration, are planning to launch e-communication as well.


Laws and attitudes must change


Krauspe said the law should make e-signatures easier and more common to use in Slovakia. A unified identifier for individuals, such as an alternative to a birth registry number or placing an electronic chip on ID cards, would be a helpful step.

But Dušan Šiplák of the Elektrotechnický Výskumný a Projektový Ústav (EVPÚ) accredited authority said there are no legislative or technical barriers to using e-signatures. The wider spread of e-signatures mainly depends on the willingness of people and offices to use it.

"As it is a form of communication, there must be at least two subjects interested in this form of communication," Šiplák told The Slovak Spectator.

It is up to them alone to decide whether to exchange invoices, contracts, orders and other documents in hard copy, or to accept their legally-equivalent electronic versions. People who are willing to trade conventional paper documents for their electronic equivalents can use e-signatures as a means of fast, modern, effective and safe communication, he said.

Šiplák agrees that the state administration should be better prepared for e-communication in order to use the e-signature system more widely. One way to do that could be creating a public electronic system for receiving and processing various documents, he said.

"Introducing this form of communication by building a public administration website will be an important milestone, which would let a citizen replace a significant number of his personal visits to offices with online 'visits', without waiting in queues, regardless of office hours," Šiplák said.

Another barrier is various so-called closed systems, typical of banks and insurance companies, which issue their own e-signature certificates that can only be used in communications with them, and do not accept any other certificates.

But the biggest obstacle is still people's attitudes, he said.

"A different kind of barrier which will be necessary to overcome is the conservative approach of people, even in the private business sector, and their tendency to not change the way of processing documents they are used to," he said.

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