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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Signatures are fading as passwords and pin numbers take centre stage

MUMBAI: The courier boy doesn't bother verifying it, nor does the retailer while accepting the debit/credit card receipt. Even the banks seem less enthusiastic - the net cast wider for customers in rural areas can manage with thumb impressions, and the middle class is happy with netbanking.

The truth is, in a world increasingly turning around passwords and Personal Identification Numbers (PIN), manual signatures are finding fewer takers. That is, if you discount cricketers from the Indian Premier League eager to oblige fans or your grandfather who still keeps a special pen and bottle of blue-black Chelpark ink and insists on signing in his name in full.
A vivid demonstration of the declining importance of the signature in the West was shown earlier this year when US President Barack Obama nominated Jacob Lew as Secretary of the Treasury, the man who would sign the new greenbacks. At this point the wider world woke up to the fact that Lew has a signature which is just a series of loops, like a broken spring.

It is an acute contrast to the elegant 18th century flourishes of Alexander Hamilton, the first holder of his position. An embarrassed Lew has said he might change it for the purpose of signing currency notes.

But this only makes the value of a signature seem even more questionable — what value does it have if it's not the way you usually do it? Indian currency notes also carry what seems to be a contradiction: two signatures from one person, since the signature of the governor of the RBI appears in both Roman and Devnagari letters.

This is as per the Official Languages Act, which mandates that since our notes are bilingual, the signatures are too, but it leaves open the interesting question of what the protocol will be if a governor has a signature in neither script.

Would the other script be Roman or Devnagari? Or would the governor have to sign in these scripts, but not use his regular one? Bankers would answer that the point of signatures is validation, which for them means easy, unforced replicability.

Our mistake is to see it as an extension of our identity, like our DNA or retina prints, but until biometric identification becomes cheap and easy to use, they are fine with getting us to perform a replicable manual act that leaves a physical trace. And while some of the need for it has declined, as with cash withdrawals, they don't anticipate signatures fading away entirely.

"The language of banking continues to be documents, and these will continue to need to be signed," says Ravi Narayanan, branch banking head (West) at HDFC Bank. Narayanan agrees that many vendors don't check credit card signatures, but he points out they are taking a risk — as are we if we don't sign our cards.

"If your card is stolen and there's no signature at the back, there's no way for the vendor to verify it when it is presented," he says. All this may become less important with the new PIN rules, but banks still require signatures on many other documents, like for taking out a loan.

What they don't need is for the signature to be readable. "In fact, we instruct our tellers not to try and read the signature when checking it, but look at it as a whole," he says.

Different people do it differently, says Narayanan, and one common way is to look at the signature upside down (so don't wonder if a teller keeps the cheque facing you while checking it against the one on the computer screen). Tellers take courses in forgery detection, but as he points out, "looking at a signature in class is one thing, and looking at hundreds in a day while sitting at a window is another".
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