Cell phone recording may breach privacy

Cell phones with a feature that lets people record calls will debut in Japan--and may soon raise privacy hackles everywhere.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
5 min read
Cell phone makers have proven adept at cramming their devices with unlikely new features--and also at ignoring the social mayhem that can follow.

Some lawmakers are working to limit cell phone use in cars, while others have voiced concerns about surreptitious photos taken with cell phone cameras and posted online. Meanwhile, privacy advocates have raised alarms about plans to incorporate so-called geotracking technology in mobile devices that can transmit the physical location of users.

Now, in the latest example of the cell phone industry's "anything goes" attitude, Japan's NTT DoCoMo and chipmaker Texas Instruments are planning to produce a device with the built-in ability to record phone calls.

The recording capability gives further proof of cell phone developers' ingenuity. But its development also serves as an illustration of the industry's tin ear when it comes to the legal and social effects of what experts call the most widely adopted and disruptive technologies ever created.

"People can abuse anything," said Carol Page, founder of CellManners.com and author of an upcoming book on cell phone etiquette. "I can just see some jerk taping a personal phone call, then sharing it with others."

Unexpected consequences are a cost of doing business in the cell phone industry, where companies are racing to introduce new features to differentiate their products from those of rivals and to create new billable services. Manufacturers seem willing to try anything, with cell phones now available that can double as a pocket organizer, retrieve e-mail, send instant messages, surf the Net, store and play music and streaming videos, take pictures, record short movie clips and play games.

Whether such mobile bundling experiments will stick with consumers remains to be seen. But social complications could put the brakes on some features, especially if they prove popular. While a recording feature could come in handy for cell phone users, it faces a major potential hurdle: the law, especially in the United States, where in general it's legal to record calls only if both parties agree.

Backers of DoCoMo's record feature downplayed legal concerns, pointing out that the industry has worked through thorny issues before.

Privacy advocates cried foul when cell phone makers first introduced a locator feature to allow police and others to find the approximate geographical position of a device. In response to privacy critics, Verizon Wireless now allows customers to turn its location service off at will--a compromise that some analysts said could help smooth the way for the technology.

"Pretty soon, you'll be able to track children on a 24-hour basis on many surveillance technologies," said Adam Thierer, an analyst with the Cato Institute.

Privacy alert
In terms of a record feature, Thierer said carriers could borrow a tactic from company call centers, one of the few frequent landline phone call recorders, which usually announce that "some calls may be recorded" before a conversation begins.

"They could always hang up" if they didn't agree to the recording, he said.

Harvard Law School assistant professor Jonathan Zittrain agreed that carriers may need to address some legal issues with a built-in recording feature but suggested the issue could be resolved. Telephone users, by default, don't expect to be recorded, so there should be some advance notice, he said.

"It's only fair to warn somebody that their casual remarks can be transcribed and attributed to them worldwide," he said. "Otherwise, we'll all end up talking like lawyers."

Typical of any innovation, the feature that lets people record calls appears in only the highest of high-end devices. In this case, it's meant for the videophones that were once used only by CNN and other TV news operations. A few years after videophones debuted during the Gulf War, they became cheap enough to sell on the mass market. By adding a record button to the devices, NTT DoCoMo hopes to get an edge over its competitors by offering corporations a way to memorialize calls for training purposes or record a message and distribute it throughout the company ranks.

Two of the world's leading handset makers, Nokia and Motorola, have also included "voice notes"--which let consumers record just a few seconds of a call--into some of their higher-end phones.

If a recording feature ever becomes mainstream, as many of Nokia or DoCoMo's innovations do, it will give cell phones another function not widely available to its wireline cousins.

"It's really irreproducible anywhere else," said Mike Yonker, Texas Instruments chief technologist for wireless.

A few months ago, Yonker said Japanese customers, including NTT, approached him to add a record button into the mix.

Not even a self-described "technogeek from Mars" could understand the request on the first try. "It took a couple of beatings on the head until we had the picture straight," he recalled during a recent interview.

The third stream
Video phones compress what are normally two streams of digital information--a moving image the phone's camera captures and speech a microphone snares.

These phones also use sophisticated methods for unknotting the two streams so they can be processed onboard the phone and translated back into a video and simultaneous audio.

But Yonker said the easiest solution wasn't available to TI. "You can't just go and take those streams and put them on a disk," he said.

Instead, TI plans to create phones capable of packing the entire conversation, moving parts and all, into a third stream, or set of digitally encoded information. It would either be stored on the cell phone or shipped to a remote computer database for storage.

Either way, it means building phones with at least twice the computing power they have now, given all the additional encoding and decoding that's going on, Yonker said.

"These devices will cost more than basic phones," Yonker said. "But this will drive more service revenue."

For his part, Cato Institute's Thierer said he can see many legitimate uses for an automatic record feature that might make it a hit with consumers. For example, he said he frequently gets directions over his cell phone--and promptly forgets them five seconds later.

"I can easily see punching the pound button and instantly start to record as my wife gives me directions," he said