Press 1 to Self-Destruct

With voice mail, what you say can and will be used against you. Take the case of former Florida state Representative Ralph Arza, who recently...
by | June 30, 2007

With voice mail, what you say can and will be used against you. Take the case of former Florida state Representative Ralph Arza, who recently pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of witness tampering. The Republican lawmaker resigned eight months ago after he was accused of leaving obscene, racially charged phone messages to intimidate a legislative colleague who had filed a formal complaint against him. The complaint: that Arza had left an earlier racially charged message.

Leaving voice-mail messages is sometimes mistakenly thought to be safer than, say, pounding out a potentially career-ending e-mail -- examples of which are now legion at all levels of government. One of my favorites appeared a few months ago in the Wisconsin State Journal, which wrote about a Middleton fire marshal who resigned after his chief learned he was using fire department computers to consult online psychics about ousting the chief.

Divining the line between different kinds of electronic communication may soon require psychic intervention as well. Unified messaging systems, which are increasingly common, marry e-mail and voice mail by delivering these and other forms of communication in a single electronic inbox, creating challenges for those in charge of establishing retention policies for legal and public record purposes.

Adding to those challenges are affordable new commercial voice-recognition services that translate voice-mail recordings into remarkably accurate text messages and deliver them within minutes as e-mail. Some voice-to-text services also deliver a recording of the original message as an attached audio file, creating yet another digital copy that might need to be retained.

The convenience and efficiency of voice-to-text will appeal to busy government executives and their staffs. After all, stealing a glance at a BlackBerry message during a protracted meeting or hearing is stealthier than calling into one's voice mail. But this new convenience also means voice-mail messages will live on in multiple forms, requiring phone and e-mail system administrators to coordinate and rethink their retention policies -- and to train their staffs and customers accordingly.

Revised rules on sharing electronically stored evidence in federal court cases have already complicated the business of voice-mail retention. Among the changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that went into effect in December were accelerated requirements for all parties in a case to disclose and provide copies of relevant electronic files, including e-mail and voice-mail messages. And state courts typically follow the federal courts' lead when it comes to discovery.

Public-records laws and policies on voice mail vary widely from place to place. But policies that distinguish between voice mail and e-mail may become irrelevant, especially if voice-to-text services catch on.

So, how accurate are these voice-to-text tools? More than you might expect. I tested one provider, SimulScribe, by leaving a challenging voice mail for myself -- a dramatic reading of a complex paragraph from an article in Governing's June issue on e-health projects. Here's the message that showed up in my inbox a few minutes after I left myself the message:

    To: Mark Stencel

    Subject: SimulScribe from (202) 862-XXXX at 09:27PM 06/05/2007

    "Rhode Island has been quick off the mark when it comes to health (IT?), it's got a lot going for it. The governor doesn't just give lip service to the idea. He's had his agency's harness their regulatory powers, make packs with the private sector and get interstate bonds to make such health IT touchdowns as electronic health records and (??) prescriptions happen. He's even offered to issue a revenue bond to fund part of some health IT projects if the private sector will commit to funding the other part."

Slightly garbled, but not too bad -- some understandable punctuation problems, a few mangled syllables. "Touchdowns" instead of "touchstones" was the worst of the typos. I gave the system a break by skipping Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri's name in my reading. To my amazement, SimulScribe accurately spelled the governor's name in subsequent tests.

As for the colorful language in the voice mail that cost Ralph Arza his state House seat in Florida -- I'll let you try that yourself.


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