Developing an Electronic Signature Solution with Grails, iText and Luna SA

It has been some time since I wrote about our efforts to develop a digital signature process. Now that we have a pilot release of our application in production, it seems like a good time to share what I’ve learned since then.

For our electronic signature solution, users fill in a series of HTML forms to apply for one of our products and then their input is used to generate a PDF version of the regulatory agency-approved application form. After obtaining the users’ confirmation that the PDF is an accurate reproduction of their responses and gaining their agreement to participate in an electronic signature process, we collect the participants’ typed names as their signatures, overwrite the PDF with their names on the appropriate lines, and digitally sign the PDF so that it can’t be altered and will stand as a legal record of the contract. The signed PDF is redisplayed to the users for their final approval before submission to back office systems.

Our digital signature solution was developed using Grails and iText.

Early in our development, we learned that while you can digitally sign a PDF with any certificate that has the right flags enabled, Adobe Reader will not reliably validate the signature upon opening (displaying the blue ribbon for a valid signature) unless you use a certificate that is chained from Adobe’s certificate authority or is on Adobe’s Approved Trust List.

Adobe’s certificate programs require partners to meet FIPS 140-2 level 2 or 3 security requirements, which include storing the certificate on a secured hardware device that can only be accessed using appropriate credentials at the time of signature. Needless to say, accepting Adobe’s solution significantly increased the cost of our project, but it was deemed to be necessary to retain customer trust in the electronic signature.

We purchased a document signing certificate from GlobalSign, which was delivered with a Luna SA 5 Hardware Storage Module from SafeNet.

We did consider using a PCI card version of the HSM instead of the more expensive networked appliance, but unfortunately, our production server is a blade and has no PCI slots. Also, we needed to be able to sign from developers’ Windows laptops and from our continuous integration server, and the PCI solution would not be accessible from multiple computers.

Because the Adobe certificate and the HSM were expensive, we made sure to verify that the solution would work as advertised before signing the purchase order. GlobalSign offers a 90-day trial certificate and SafeNet made available to us a Luna SA hosted from their location that they call the e-Lab. So we were actually able to develop and test proof of concept code on our own hardware before we made the purchase.

In future posts, I’ll share some info about how we got the Luna SA set up and loaded with our certificates, and give some code examples of how to sign using the Luna SA 5 and iText.

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