Time-stamping documents on the blockchain: how does it work?

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All about time stamping

Time stamping of documents is a secure way of proving the veracity of data relating to a document, whether it is a report, a receipt or an administrative document. Indeed, thanks to time stamping, an immutable proof of the date on which a document was created or signed can be issued, which makes practices even more secure when they are dematerialised. 

In this article we will explore how time stamping of documents works, the importance of integrity in a trust relationship and how the blockchain can help in terms of immutability and speed. 

The principle of time stamping

Time-stamping refers to the process of recording the date and time of an event, the transmission of information or computer data.

This is a very important feature in many cases, both for individuals and for companies. In the physical world, it is the equivalent of a postmark on a handwritten document. In the electronic format, time stamping of documents works in the same way: when a person signs an electronic document, the software used may have an automatic time stamping system that will record the date and time of the electronic signature. 

This action provides legal protection against any possible challenge to the content of a document, its authenticity or its integrity. 

In order to protect sensitive documents with high probative value, it is essential to have a reliable, secure and easy-to-use time-stamping tool.

The importance of the integrity of electronic documents

Time stamping of documents guarantees their integrity (at Archipels,document integrity is ensured through the use of blockchain technology). Integrity is essential for many service companies that maintain a relationship of trust with their customers or employees. Legally, it is a guarantee of non-alteration and therefore of the authenticity of documents. 

Using a reliable time-stamping tool that offers a high level of security and can be used in all circumstances is strategic for any technical, purchasing, compliance, accounting or human resources department. 

If time stamping is a device that guarantees the integrity of a document, it is also a tool that allows the evolution of the latter to be traced over time. Thus, a date and time are applied to each modification of a document to follow its evolution while preserving the integrity of previous versions. 

Keeping a record of changes to a document - adding annexes to a commercial contract, amending part of an employment contract or updating the terms and conditions of a software package - can be crucial to avoiding disputes.     

The use of blockchain as an assurance of integrity, immutability and speed

Traditional time-stamping tools ensure the integrity and tracking of documents. Today, the time-stamping of a document is done by a trusted third party time-stamper or by a time-stamping authority. 

Beyond that, the use of these tools poses problems on several levels: 

  • Managing new versions of documents is a time-consuming and costly process. For example, in the management of supplier contracts, tracing the different versions of the same document can quickly lead to confusion, a source of error, but also to additional costs in document management procedures (it is estimated that, on average, a company spends 5 to 15% of its turnover on managing its paper documents).
  • The integrity of evidential documents can be subject to technological obsolescence. Beyond proprietary file formats that create a dependency on third-party software, there is nothing more frustrating than having to manage the conversion of evidential documents to new formats while retaining its original properties, without any alteration.  
  • The dematerialisation of documents suffers from a lack of knowledge of the legal value of these processes by business teams, thus preventing their wider adoption. In addition, with the implementation of new regulations on data retention (e.g. RGPD), uncertainties about the sustainability of an integrated electronic system persist.

To overcome these problems, new technologies have come onto the market that are powerful, immutable and easy to use. More specifically, the blockchain covers these properties with remarkable efficiency, particularly thanks to decentralisation. The latter allows data to be secured: altering the attributes of a document with evidential value anchored on the blockchain is too complex a process to be carried out as it would require hacking all the nodes of the network. The blockchain therefore allows for the immutability of data and the preservation of evidence with a level of security unmatched by traditional time-stamping solutions.  

Time-stamping documents with probative value on the blockchain guarantees unprecedented immutability and security, which corresponds to the compliance needs of any company: the integrity of any document cannot be called into question and any data leakage or theft is virtually impossible.

What legal value for electronic time stamping via blockchain?

As we have seen, blockchain protocols provide significant added value for time stamping. Cryptographic processes and peer-to-peer network technologies guarantee reliability and security. But what about their legal recognition? Does the law recognise the use of blockchain for time stamping? 

While blockchain technology is not specifically named in the regulations on the evidential value of electronic documents, its operation is compatible with the requirements of electronic time stamping. 

Thus, Article 41 of eIDAS 1st version recognises that :

  1. The legal effect and admissibility of an electronic time-stamp as evidence in court cannot be denied solely on the grounds that the time-stamp is in electronic form.
  2. A qualified electronic timestamp shall enjoy a presumption of accuracy of the date and time it indicates and of the integrity of the data to which that date and time relate.
  3. A qualified electronic timestamp issued in one Member State shall be recognised as a qualified timestamp in all other Member States. 

Furthermore, the proposal for the eiDAS 2nd version regulation, which aims to strengthen the legal framework for the use of trust services, extends this spirit by recognising qualified electronic time stamping.

More specifically, the section of eIDAS 2 dealing with electronic time stamping defines electronic time stamping as a method which "makes it possible to certify that data in electronic form existed at a given moment" and specifies that it "may be used to date the dispatch or receipt of a letter, but also, more generally, to certify the existence of data at a given moment, or the date of an act carried out by electronic means"

At the European level, an update of the eIDAS regulation proposed by the European Commission includes a section that creates a new trust service related to the operation of an electronic registry such as blockchain. This proposal includes a presumption of uniqueness, authenticity and immutability of data contained in a qualified electronic registry such as blockchain.

Thus, by associating with the anchored data dates guaranteeing the temporality of a document with evidential value (in particular by recording the date of the entry of the transaction submitted for validation by the validators and the date of the validation of the transaction block), blockchain technology can meet the requirements of the eIDAS regulation, while offering new perspectives for the reliability of dating, the securing of transactions and the management of versioning.  

The next developments of eIDAS will be decisive for the official recognition of blockchain technology. Nevertheless, the properties of this technology are compatible with the requirements of electronic time stamping in the European sense and promise a recognised and wider application of blockchain in the future.

What are the advantages of time stamping?

In short, time stamping of documents is essential for companies wishing to establish a relationship of trust with their employees, partners or customers. It is much more than just putting a date and time on a document. It is the guarantee of the integrity of a document, its authenticity and the traceability of the various historical modifications that may have been made to it. Time stamping is the only way to ensure the immutable nature of a document, particularly in the event of litigation where time stamping provides legal proof. 

Furthermore, document time stamping can be implemented in a completely autonomous way without disrupting the user experience and by adapting to any technical environment. Some solutions, such as Archipels, rely on the use of an API for simple integration of the time-stamping process into any workflow.

If you would like to know more about the Archipels platform and in particular how it can help you time-stamp all your documents in a simple, automated and secure way, contact us!

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