Online Notary Digital Certificates Explained

Electronic-based notarizations, especially remote online notarizations (RONs), were on the rise long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but their use has increased significantly over the past year. Electronic and remote notarizations reduce the amount of paperwork that sometimes is associated with traditional, in-person notarizations, and they accelerate the delivery of notarized documents to the receiving party.

However, electronically notarized documents are more prone to security risks than paper documents and require validation to ensure their authenticity and integrity. That is why digitally notarizing documents is so important. Digital signatures provide a programmatical way of guaranteeing that notarized documents are genuine.

What Is a Notary Digital Certificate?

Think of a digital signature as a virtual fingerprint on an electronic document or as a handwritten signature or corporate seal embossed on a paper document. A digital signature is unique to each document and offers more security by using a mathematical algorithm to validate the authenticity and integrity of an electronic document. A digitally notarized document solves the problem of tampering and is as legally binding as signing with a pen and paper. It has four advantages:

  1. It binds a notary to a notarized document, and the notary cannot deny performing the notarial act since the digital certificate, when being attached to a document, requires a private key that is only known to the notary.
  2. It includes the date and time the document was notarized.
  3. It makes the electronic notarized document hard to forge. 
  4. It informs the recipients whether the document was modified after the notary initially signed the document.

How Does a Notary Digital Certificate Work?

Each notary’s digital certificate has two keys: a private key and a public key. When a notary digitally notarizes a document, the notary’s computer creates a hashing algorithm of numbers and letters unique to the document. It then embeds this algorithm in the document and encrypts it with the notary’s private key, which outputs the digital signature of a document. If the document is altered, even with one letter, a new unique hashing algorithm is created that is entirely different from the one created by the notary’s private key. This minor change renders the digitally signed document invalid.  

So, if a person receives a digitally notarized document, he or she also receives a copy of the notary’s public key, which contains the same unique hashing algorithm of the original document encrypted by the notary’s private key. If the document is altered, the hashing algorithms of the public key and the document are different, which means that the document has been changed in some way, rendering it invalid. The modified document will display a big red “X” alerting the receiver not to accept the document.

How Can a Notary Protect His or Her Digital Certificate?

Follow your state’s notary laws - Keep your notary digital certificate under your exclusive control. Avoid storing it in clouds. The most secure digital certificate is one that is issued on a secure thumb drive that you carry with you at all times and you keep offline when not in use.

Don’t share your private key password with anyone - People can commit fraud when they have access to your digital certificate and to your private key. Think of the digital certificate as your thumbprint. It will be hard to deny singing a document if your fingerprint is all over the document.

Report loss of your digital certificate to your state’s commissioning authority – In addition, report the loss to your local law enforcement agencies and to the trusted company that issued the certificate, as the company may be able to invalidate the lost digital certificate. Follow your state’s laws on replacing the lost digital certificate.

Don’t keep your digital certificate on a remote online notary platform - If you decide not to do business with a remote online notary platform or switch to a different platform, always take your digital certificate with you. It is similar to your notary inked stamp, state-issued ID, or your driver’s license. Think about it: would you purposely leave your driver’s license at grocery store when you go shopping? It belongs to you even if a remote online platform paid for it. If you cannot take it with you, ensure that is destroyed to render it unusable.

Purchase a digital certificate installed on a thumb drive – This is the more secure way to protect yourself and your digital certificate. If your computer is ever compromised, you are protected. If your thumb drive is lost, your digital certificate cannot be used since it requires a password to access it and it may lock your account after several login failures.

What Does a Digital Signature Look Like?

A digital certificate is a code that is downloaded to your computer or a code on a thumb drive that you connect to your computer when you are ready to digitally notarize a document, so it is invisible. However, digital certificates can be incorporated into an image of the notary’s seal and signature. By clicking on the notary seal or signature, you will be able to verify that the document was digitally notarized, who notarized it, at what date and time it was notarized, and if it was modified. PDF files usually display a seal icon and blue ribbon across the top of the document that shows the document signer’s name and the certificate issuer.

Electronic Notary Seal and Signature

Many notaries are under the assumption that creating an electronic image of a notary seal and notary official signature will satisfy a state’s remote and electronic notary law requirements. An electronic notary seal and signature is just an image and does not offer any type of security to an electronically notarized document. The document can be easily modified and does not provide evidence that it has been altered since it was notarized. 

Digital Certificates Increase the Security of Notarizations

Electronic and remote online notarizations are here to stay. The technology needed to perform these notarial services is constantly evolving, and it is essential to ensure the security of such services. Digital certificates are a critical tool in this effort, as they protect both notaries and signers.  

By Evelin Garcia, a Contributing Writer with the American Association of Notaries, Inc.

Legal Disclaimer: The American Association of Notaries seeks to provide timely articles for notaries to assist them with information for managing their notary businesses, enhancing their notary education, and securing their notary stamp and notary supplies. Every effort is made to provide accurate and complete information in the American Association of Notaries newsletters. However, we make no warrant, expressed or implied, and we do not represent, undertake, or guarantee that the information in the newsletter is correct, accurate, complete, or non-misleading. Information in this article is not intended as legal advice. We are not attorneys. We do not pretend to be attorneys. Though we will sometimes provide information regarding notaries' best practices, federal laws and statutes, and the laws and statutes of each state, we have gathered this information from a variety of sources and do not warrant its accuracy. In no event shall the American Association of Notaries, its employees, or contractors be liable to you for any claims, penalties, loss, damage, or expenses, howsoever arising, including, and without limitation, direct or indirect loss or consequential loss out of or in connection with the use of the information contained in the American Association of Notaries newsletters. It is your responsibility to know the appropriate notary laws governing your state. Notaries are advised to seek the advice of their states' notary authorities or attorneys in their state if they have legal questions. If a section of this disclaimer is determined by any court or other competent authority to be unlawful and/or unenforceable, the other sections of this disclaimer continue in effect.

Notary bonds and errors and omissions insurance policies provided by this insurance agency, American Association of Notaries, Inc., are underwritten by Western Surety Company, Universal Surety of America, or Surety Bonding Company of America, which are subsidiaries of CNA Surety.

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