May 2000. Tony Blair is prime minister, the Tate Modern opens to the public, the BlackBerry 957's email function makes it the smartest phone on the block, and parliament passes the Electronic Communications Act; creating a statutory framework for the legal admissibility of electronic signatures in England and Wales.
Yet, half a generation on, we're still signing documents with pen and paper, at least when anything serious is at stake - and especially when lawyers are involved. Whatever happened to the future?
For a clue, look at the Law Commission's latest consultation, on reforming the law of wills. As widely reported, the commission is enthusiastic about going digital. It even sounds out the possibility of linking electronic wills to a computerised probate service to execute the testator's instructions automatically.
But this enthusiasm comes with a gigantic caveat: when it comes to signing the document, digital is not currently up to the job. Techies will be outraged: surely with the benefits of advances from biometrics to blockchain, technology can devise a more robust signature than a medieval scrawl?
That may be technically true, but it ignores the wider context of signing a document.
Electronic signatures were developed for commercial transactions, to validate one counterparty’s identity to the other. Such agreements are generally intended to be secret, unless of course something goes badly wrong. (The current Law Society practice note on electronic signatures applies to the execution of commercial contracts.) With a will, a signature functions to authenticate a public document, albeit one generally kept in petto until the testator’s death. 'The unilateral nature of wills means that a signature on a will performs a distinct function,' the commission states. This means they are held to a particularly high standard.
Hence the need for two witnesses to sign in the presence of the testator. Electronic signatures are not designed for contemporaneous witnessing. This alone seems to shoot down any possibility of signing wills with the government’s approved authentication system, gov.uk.verify. The commission is sceptical about Verify in any case, saying that the system 'does not currently ensure that the person entering the information is in fact the person he or she is purporting to be; rather it focuses on verifying that the person exists.’
Interestingly, Verify has been approved by Land Registry for authenticating at least one highly sensitive online transaction, the registration of mortgages.
The Law Commission is equally sceptical about biometrics, citing claims that fingerprint and iris scan data have been stolen and forged. Moreover, it notes that once biometric data has been compromised, it cannot easily be made secure again. 'A fingerprint cannot be reset in the same way a password can.'
Any replacement to handwritten signatures must be capable of at least the same level of forensic scrutiny, the commission says.
But technical security isn't the whole story. There's a good reason why society has evolved rituals around the significant events in life, whether getting married, naming a child or decreeing who should get our goodies after we’re gone. Some jurisdictions go further with the formalities, as demonstrated by the acte authentique to transfer a property in France. The means by which we certify these transactions may be apparently flimsy - a squiggle with a fountain pen, or a stamp with the Japanese carved ivory ‘hanko’ - but the process as a whole deters casual fraud. We move these rituals from the public to private sphere at our peril - in voting, for example, on-demand postal ballots seem to encourage dodgy practices.
Back to wills, the Law Commission offers one high tech possibility. Video recordings seem 'ideally suited' to wills as the testator is directly linked to the content and witnesses can be present, it suggests. Video is no panacea, however. As the commission points out, wills are technical documents in which it is important that language is used precisely. The commission also notes the possibility that forgeries might by contrived with computer generated imagery. The legal gurus say this is a risk 'which is beyond our expertise to assess'.
Another little difficulty is that of storing a digital will, potentially for decades. Does anyone have a player for 1980s SelectaVision video discs to hand?
Such obstacles are not insuperable, however. Perhaps the solution is a central secure database, something along the lines of Land Registry, connected to a network of skilled and professionally accountable advisers to certify testators' identities and ensure scripts are delivered in the right form. No doubt Gazette readers will have suggestions for who could fulfil that function - so long as clients can be persuaded to pay for it.