Signing Off: The Slow Death of the Signature in a PIN-Code World

There was a time when we took our signatures seriously, when we believed they said something about who we are. But now we have PIN numbers.


As a kid, Marcel Danesi loved signatures. Now he studies them -- along with other signs and symbols -- for a living. "In Grade 8, I wanted to imitate another guy who was the stud of the school, so I imitated his signature," says Danesi, a professor of semiotics and anthropology at the University of Toronto. "I felt empowered by the fact that I could sign like this guy. I imitated the detail: the way he made his 'i,' the way he made his 'a.'"

But these days, Danesi isn't signing his name the way he used to. The electronic signature capture pad -- the ubiquitous device at retail checkout counters -- just leaves a pixelated mess. And when he writes letters of recommendation for his students, nobody wants a handwritten signature at all. "My signature is my email," he says. "That to me is the death knell of the signature."

With the expansion of electronic communication, the rise of more advanced forms of authentication, and the ease of signature forgery, some experts believe it's only a matter of time before the handwritten signature starts to vanish.

In other words, the PIN is starting to look mightier than the pen.

"It really does make me wistful," Danesi says. "The signature is such a beautiful thing."

When it comes to financial transactions, it's difficult to find people who favor the continuation of electronic signature capture pads. Most prefer "chip and PIN" technology -- a card with an embedded chip along with a personal identification number.

"There are pros and cons to both signatures and chip/PINs, so I am not an advocate of eliminating signatures at retail checkouts," says Heidi Harralson, a forensic-document examiner who analyzes disputed signatures in civil and criminal cases. "However, many of the electronic signature capture systems used by retailers are not capturing signatures that allow for forensic analysis."

She adds, "In my own research, I have found that a person's signature can alter dramatically between what is signed on the back of a credit card versus what is signed on a capture pad. This is making it difficult for document examiners to verify signatures, let alone cashiers."

While some customers have given up on the capture pad, others are in outright revolt, choosing to write joke names or draw smiley faces in protest. "My 5-year-old signs for me," says Amy Clay of Florence, Ky. "She gets mad if she isn't allowed to."

Even at checkout counters that require customers to sign on paper, cashiers rarely question a signature. Such routine acceptance of almost any mark inspired John Hargrave at the humor website Zug to ask the question: "How crazy would I have to make my signature before someone would actually notice?"

He started by scribbling, then moved on to drawing a matrix, and eventually converted his name into Egyptian hieroglyphics. No one noticed. Finally, he took a reader's suggestion and signed "I stole this card." Still no reaction.

There was a time when signatures were taken seriously.

"We've always marked our existence," says Danesi. "Tribal cultures left the communal mark, or the kinship mark, on their surroundings. The mark could have been the figure of an animal, or a tree, or anything in their immediate environment. And that mark meant this group of people was a family."

Wax seals were the preferred method of signing documents until the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, the handwritten signature began to blossom alongside increases in literacy. "The signature became what semioticians call an index -- an identifier sign that will identify you for life," Danesi says. "Signatures are expressive. In a way, we are our signature."

But the signature is ill-suited for many of its current uses. While signatures remain America's chosen method of authorization, PIN-code transactions are much less susceptible to fraud.

"Fraud rates on credit or debit cards that are signature-based are much higher than on cards with PIN protection," notes Chris Hawkins in his book A History of Signatures: From Cave Paintings to Robo-Signings. In 2005, a consulting firm found that signature-based debit card fraud rates were 15 times higher than PIN-based fraud rates.

If PIN codes work better, why are we still using signatures? Many retailers are asking the same question.

"U.S. electronic payment technology is antiquated," says Brian Dodge, a senior vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents nine of the 10 largest American retailers. "Stronger fraud prevention technology -- chip and PIN -- is deployed in nearly every other industrialized nation except the U.S."

He adds, "Cashiers cannot be expected to be forensic writing analysts."

Back at the University of Toronto, Danesi admits that PIN codes, embedded computer chips, and eventually DNA technology are the future of authentication and authorization.

Still, he wishes things could be different.

"In this electronic tribal world, as Marshall McLuhan called it, we're losing our individuality," Danesi says. "We're becoming part of a tribe again. The signature, to me and to many others in my field, was the epitome of individuality: 'Here I am. This is me. I am more than my DNA.'"

Image: Massachusetts Historical Society.