Voice Signatures

Has anyone had any experience with the use of the voice as a legal signature (presumably by way of a recording)? Is there any case law on the topic, one way or the other?

When we did the UECA in 1999, we had in mind that a voice mail message might be an electronic document and the association of the content with the speaker could well constitute a signature.

There is some law that a signature must be an intentional act, and whether just saying ‘Hello, it’s John, I accept your offer to sell me your house’ would constitute an intention to sign, I am not sure.

There is also a lot of law finding all sorts of marks and codes to be signatures, usually to prevent someone from getting out of an obligation on the ground that the Statute of Frauds required a more formal signature. So the degree of intention needed may be small.

The UNCITRAL Electronic Communications Convention allows electronic signatures to fulfil legal signing requirements if the method used is shown to ‘identify the party and to indicate that party’s intention in respect of the information contained in the electronic communication’. So my voice mail example above would qualify under the ECC.

Is there some reason that a voice message should not satisfy that definition?

So: how about voice mail – or other form of recording? (One imagines a transaction where party is unable to write, or a remote transaction done by phone or on video conference.) Assuming that the questions of storage and authentic reproduction are solved, is there a problem taking the recording itself as a signature? Does it matter about the recording medium: digital or other (probably not on a wax cylinder, these days)?

Is this any different from using a voice recording to be the document itself, i.e. to serve as writing? Would that be problematic, in your view?

By the way, Australia’s Electronic Transactions Act seems to limit the use of recorded speech as electronic communication. The definition of ‘electronic communications’ says it means this:

(b) a communication of information in the form of speech by means of guided and/or unguided electromagnetic energy, where the speech is processed at its destination by an automated voice recognition system.

The ULCC was aware of the Australian text and decided not to put any such limit on our law.

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  1. John, this is just a basic comment for you… With all the advances in voice recognition these days, how much longer will we see a simple voice recording? Even old-tech telephone transactions of any importance always seem to involve the keypad for verification, or confirmation of an agreement. I’m thinking of telephone banking as an example.

    Voice recognition complicates things somewhat, but most of these command systems also have an additional step asking users to confirm their intent.

    Relying on an unverified recorded message as standard of agreement seems pretty weak. If you’re going to have a ‘meeting of the minds’, it seems logical that the person utilizing technology (Voice-mail, or other…) with the intent of seeking that agreement needs to put an effort into the process. Disagree?

  2. If you’ve ever had your phone from Bell you’ll know Emily and her invitation to use voice recognition to log in to their help and service lines. The phrase used: “At Bell my voice is my password.”

  3. Steven, I think we have to distinguish between whether a voice signature can be a valid signature under the e-commerce legislation, and whether one should want to use it as such – in which case, subject to what safeguards?

    The definition of electronic signature in legislation based on the Uniform Electronic Commerce Act is usually something like information in electronic form created with intention to sign and in, attached to or associated with the information to be signed. It seems to me that a voice recording would meet that definition.

    The legislation goes on to say that where the law requires a signature, an e-signature satisfies the requirement. So a voice signature would do so.

    However, the legislation also says that it does not require anyone to use or accept information in electronic form, so if one is not comfortaable ‘signing’ by leaving a voice message, one does not have to do it. If one can say No, one can say Yes … If the method is secure enough for me.

    Usually the law does not require a signature at all, so the question is not one of satisfying a statute but authenticating a document (or a transaction) in an appropriately reliable way. I agree that the considerations you raise would affect one’s judgment on what one was prepared to rely on.

    Simon, Bell may consider your voice to be your password, but (a) a password is a method of authentication but not normally of signature, and (b) will Emily help you if you have laryngitis, or even a bad cold?