Who Actually Hears Your Voicemail Messages?
When you leave someone a voicemail message, you expect that the party you called will ultimately hear it. But have you considered that there may be other potential listeners as well?
Years ago, if you wanted to have telephone calls answered when you weren't around, you basically had a couple of options. You could pay for expensive live telephone answering services, or you could use a telephone answering machine (aka "answerphone"). In the glory days of Ma Bell several decades ago, when it was still illicit to hook up your own telephone equipment to phone lines, a typical (pretty much only!) legal approach was to rent from the phone company (at fairly outrageous prices) an answering machine like the Code-A-Phone 700 -- a heavy duty device that seemed to weigh as much as a battleship and could probably survive a direct hit by a tactical nuke.
Of course there were some folks for which the, ah, legal niceties were of less concern than the joys of experimentation. Over the years of my youth I built a whole series of answering machines -- the original ones based on my Erector Set -- that performed with various degrees of aplomb but, alas, certainly didn't meet AT&T "BSP" technical specs.
Once it became legal to hook up your own equipment, all manner of answering devices appeared based on different tape systems, and later, digital recording of highly varying audio quality.
Such consumer-oriented machines -- and live answering services as well -- still exist of course, and for simplicity and various other functionalities they can serve their purposes well.
Nowadays though, centralized voicemail has become extremely common, not only of the relatively straightforward type typically offered by cell carriers and local phone companies, but also highly sophisticated systems integrated with the Internet, such as Google Voice and YouMail.
I've chosen these two services as examples mainly because I'm fans of both -- and use both of them every day. But with any centralized voicemail system comes a potentially thorny question -- just how private are the voicemail messages that callers leave for you?
Given that such messages are simply files spinning on servers somewhere, all of the usual data retention questions come into play.
Are archived copies still stored after you "delete" voicemail from your inbox and trash folders? How accessible are your messages to third parties -- courts, lawyers, law enforcement -- with or without subpoenas?
A taped message on a local physical answering machine is pretty much totally under the user's control to save, delete, or physically destroy. Not so with centralized voicemail.
Still, most voicemail services understand the sensitivity of this voice message data, have published privacy policies that address such issues at least in general and sometimes with great specificity, and typically can be depended upon not to hand over your messages to a third party investigation or court without appropriate legal process.
Certainly this includes both YouMail and Google Voice.
But a relatively new aspect of sophisticated voicemail systems, which might be called "voicemail transcription for the masses" threatens to cloud this picture a bit.
Google, for example, routinely transcribes voicemail into textual form as a basic part of the free Google Voice service. YouMail offers similar transcriptions as fee-based options.
Google's transcription system is totally automated -- untouched by human hands, so to speak. Speech to text in the telephone environment is one seriously tough task. Google Voice transcripts today are sometimes not perfect and occasionally contain some amusing transcription errors, but overall they're pretty damn good -- and given Google Voice's rapidly growing user community, they're likely to continue getting better at breakneck speed.
But what if automated transcriptions just aren't felt to be accurate enough right now for some applications? That's where a potentiallyproblematic aspect of YouMail comes into play. As it turns out -- though this is currently not obvious from online YouMail documentation -- some YouMail voicemail messages are transcribed by human beings (as far as I know right now, by an outside company contracted to do this work by YouMail). Reportedly the lower tier of YouMail's transcription service is essentially fully automated (but I'm told that it's possible some difficult messages might potentially be kicked to live transcribers at this level). YouMail's higher priced "More Accurate" transcription tier is apparently more routinely dependent on human transcribers.
Humans in the transcription loop can't help but create a qualitatively different situation than fully automated systems.
Users need to know when humans are involved with the generation and storage of voicemail transcripts, so that those users can make informed decisions about whether or not they wish to avail themselves of those facilities -- based on their own comfort levels with third parties hearing their private voicemail messages, and the possible associated social, legal, and civil implications.
What happens when a human transcriber hears some important, private, business-related information? Can they always be depended upon to treat it as confidential and not make use of that information for their own gain? Or what if the transcriber believes -- rightly or not -- that they're overhearing something illegal? Or how about just plain "juicy" messages -- perhaps involving someone important or well known? What steps are taken to make sure that human transcribers can't make audio copies (easy to do with a cell phone recorder or a tiny digital recording device) of "interesting" voicemail messages for their own use, abuse, pleasure, distribution, sale, etc.? There's a whole spectrum of important issues when humans are in the transcription loop, that simply don't exist in fully automated transcription environments.
In response to my concerns, YouMail has agreed with me that their current documentation is deficient in this regard, and informs me that they now plan to clearly explain in their online materials the extent to which humans are involved in voicemail transcriptions, and what precautions are in place when transcriptions are processed by humans rather than by purely automated systems. I appreciate YouMail's immediate response to my concerns.
But the broader question of whether any given individual will prefer to have their private messages processed by machines, humans, or a combination of both, is a complex issue without any universal answers.
Human-machine trade-offs are often fascinating. Many years ago, customers of one major firm were bemused by overdue payment notices that used to say something like:
"This is the billing computer at [XYZ Corp]. Your account is now 30 days overdue. So far I'm the only one who knows about it. But if your payment isn't received within 10 days, I'm going to have to inform a human, and they may not be as pleasant as I am!"
Image by jeffschuler, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet