Speech in Electronic Signatures

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Even though they may be total strangers, notaries public areattendant at the most momentous events of our lives. From real estatetransactions to wills, trusts and international adoptions, when it comes timeto complete the agreement, a notary public will be present. He may even turnout to be one of the best lines of defense against identity crimes.

Notaries public, of which the National Notary Association(NNA) reports there are more than 4 .5 million in the United States, arelegally empowered to identify the parties to a transaction and certify thevalidity of a document. But the most important task a notary is empowered toperform is certifying that the signer was competent to sign the document andthat the signer did so willingly.

Richard Hansberger, director of eNotarization at the NNA,states that there are more than 900 million transactions notarized in the U.S.annually. Increasing numbers of transactions that were traditionallyeffectuated on paper are now being created, processed, and completed digitally,without a paper document ever being generated. 

To accommodate the transition into the digital arena the NNAcreated Enjoa (an electronic notary record-keeping system software) and anElectronic Notary Seal (ENS).

Enjoa enables notaries to record journal entries on a PCjust as they would keep a traditional paper journal. The software captures andstores the signer’s signature and thumbprint, and can also store the signer’sphotograph. The ENS is an SISAC-accredited, standards-based, x.509 v.3 digitalcertificate issued only to approved electronic notaries and, because itincorporates third-party time-stamp software, the seal is tamper-evident.

Enjoa and the ENS accept password or fingerprint biometriclog-on, but Hansberger believes that voice biometrics is a logical next step,envisioning voice as a secure and more natural way for the notary to log intothe electronic notarization software instead of using a fingerprint. 

Voice biometrics could also be used if a notary’s ENSbecomes compromised, necessitating the need to revoke the certificate. Thenotary could call a designated telephone number, using voice authentication toreport the compromise, thereby revoking the certificate immediately beforeunauthorized users could fraudulently notarize any records. 

Although voice is a promising tool for identityauthentication and active signing, a sufficient threshold of reliability mustbe determined. This may be dynamic; what may be appropriate to complete a $20transaction may be wholly unacceptable for a $20 billion transaction.

If a party were to dispute the authenticity of the voicebiometric, the party proffering it would need to show the process that was usedto tie the voiceprint to the person and to tie the person to that specific document.It would need to show the purported signer’s intent, which, according to ThomasJ. Smedinghoff, partner with the law firm of Wildman Harrold, can range fromagreeing to the terms of the document to signing the document, or even justacknowledging its receipt.

"Even if I canestablish it’s mine," says Smedinghoff, "how do I establish it was put there inthe context of that transaction as opposed to [being] a copy of a digitalsignature that was attached to something else?"

A Matter of Law

Security features, including biometrics, PKI, third-partytime-stamps, and hash algorithms may be integrated into the electronic documentprocess to ensure a document is not altered or accessed inappropriately.Biometrics may even be used to validate the identity of a party and to serve asa signature. But, relationships that require notarized documentation of theagreement must be entered into willingly and by parties who are competent ifthat documentation is to be enforceable in a court of law. None of theabove-mentioned security solutions ensure the volition and competence of thesigners.

This makes the personal appearance before a notaryfundamental because it is the only way to ensure the signer’s identity,acknowledgement, volition, and awareness. Hansberger points out that all of the challenges to e-docs involvedocuments that are not notarized.

The numbers of electronic signatures and associated digitaltransactions can be expected to increase. But, because many of thesetransactions are of high-value or sensitive natures, we need to ensure that thesecurity of the parties is commensurate to the security associated withtraditional paper documents. Biometrics may prove to be an integral part of thesolution. With all the technology-based safeguards available, including biometrics,none are as powerful a tool in maintaining the integrity of the process ashuman perception. Because of this, it is unlikely we will ever completelyremove the human element.

Robin Springer is the president of Computer Talk (www.comptalk.com), a consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of speech recognition and other hands-free technology services. She can be reached at (888) 999-9161 or contactus@comptalk.com.

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