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voiceprint An electronic translation of sound into a pictorial or graphical representation; essentially, it is a sonogram of a person's voice. It was first developed in the mid 1960s by Lawrence G. Kersta, an engineer from New Jersey, who researched sound identification for the FBI. According to proponents of the technology, the variations of the human vocal tract ensure that each person's voice is spectographically individual. They compare voiceprints with fingerprints or footprints in their unique representation of identity.

Law enforcement has long struggled with the admissibility of voiceprints in court, as a means of identifying voices caught on tape. While the US Supreme Court has not ruled on the admissibility of voiceprints, it did, in 1993, set a new standard for the admissibility of expert testimony and scientific evidence; where earlier rules demanded ‘general acceptance’ of the principles involved, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals argued that admissibility of evidence ‘rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand.’ Thus the admissibility of voiceprints is decided on a case-by-case basis. While proponents argue that voiceprints are analogous to fingerprints, detractors argue that, unlike fingerprints, voices can change due to illness, injury, or age, making voiceprints far less reliable.

With the current explosion of electronic, computer, and telephone commerce, voiceprints are becoming popular as a potential security measure. Defined as a biometric-based signature, voiceprints can be used to identify a speaker positively on the basis of physical characteristics, namely the specific configuration of vocal cavities (throat, naval cavities, and mouth) and articulators (lips, teeth, tongue, and soft palate). Commercial interests are particularly drawn to biometric-based signatures, because they cannot be lost, stolen, or forgotten. Further, one bank, which was using voiceprints experimentally, opined that customers would be likely to accept the idea of voiceprints because they were less intrusive than fingerprints or retina scans, and less likely to be entered in national databases.

While a voiceprint is particularly technological, it extends a previously held idea that one's voice is not simply an identifying marker, like a fingerprint, but is instead the unique expression of one's essential self. In literary studies, this has manifested in the idea that all writers, professional as well as amateur, have an authentic voice that one should be able to identify and strengthen. Movements such as cultural studies, women's studies, and race studies have used the concept to highlight exclusions in various traditions. When a writer, musician, or other artist is hailed as the ‘voice of his or her generation’, he or she is seen as encapsulating the identity of an age.

Julie Vedder


Block, E. B. (1975). Voiceprinting: how the law can read the voice of crime. David McKay Company, Inc., New York.
Field, R. L. (1997). ‘The electronic future of cash: survey: 1996: survey of the year's developments in electronic cash law and the laws affecting electronic banking in the United States.’ The American University Law Review, April 1997.

See also speech; voice.