BBC News

Should we be recording our phone calls?

By Matthew Wall
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionMonkey business: Recording phone calls with tradesmen could protect you from broken promises

New services that enable consumers and small businesses to record telephone calls, store them to "the cloud" and then read transcripts or carry out key-word searches of the audio database, are potentially revolutionising the way we treat the spoken word.

Skype - the internet voice, video and text messaging giant - offers its customers a number of call recording apps from companies such as Amolto, Callnote and PrettyMay.

Appetite for the service is clearly strong, as several such apps top the company's download charts.

And Apple's iTunes store features an app, by MotionApps, allowing iPhone and iPad users to record and transcribe their phone conversations.

But one award-winning UK startup, Calltrunk, is attracting particular attention for enabling its customers to record phone conversations made from any phone, anywhere, and make keyword searches of the audio database stored on its servers.

Calltrunk hopes its ARGOsearch software will do for voice calls what Google did for text and image search.

Searching high and low

image captionListening back to phone calls with family helped Cindy Provost deal with breast cancer, she says

The company has won three technology awards for the way its search engine indexes time-stamped keywords from audio files, then adds meta-data to create a richer search experience.

Cindy Provost, 46, from Leominster, Massachusetts, a US Air Force professor of aerospace studies and commander of reserve officer training at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, uses Calltrunk on her iPhone and computer to replay messages and conversations with her nephews.

"We move around a lot because we're in the military, so I don't get to see my family as often as I would like," she says.

"Conversations with my nephews are really important to me. In fact, being able to listen to them again really helped me get through a recent bout of breast cancer treatment."

Cindy also has two grandmothers, one aged 100 and the other turning 100 soon.

"I've already taken to recording their oral history when I see them in person," she says, "but as they're three hours' drive away, I'm going to start recording their telephone conversations as well using the voice recording service."

image captionCalltrunk can be used on your PC or your mobile phone

Calltrunk can record and store conversations made via any phone - fixed line or mobile - and has currently amassed more than 20,000 customers worldwide after just over a year of operation.

Skype customers can record all their calls for $5 (£3.13) a month, otherwise calls routed via its service cost about 13 cents a minute.

The search engine software shows users how often chosen keywords appear in a conversation and where in the timeline.

Of course, there is nothing new about voice recording per se - call centres and helplines have been recording customer conversations for years "for training purposes", and financial institutions now have to record mobile phone calls as well for compliance reasons.

The two biggest players in the US are Nice Systems and Verint Systems, both specialising in the collection and analysis of voice, video and text for surveillance purposes.

Most of their clients are big businesses, however, and as disruptive technologies like Calltrunk's come along there is increasing pressure to reduce costs.

This could be one reason why the two companies are reportedly in merger talks - a deal that could have antitrust regulators crawling all over it.

Small packages

But while big business is well served, there has been little around for consumers and small businesses.

Richard Newton, Calltrunk's marketing director, says: "Companies record us, so why shouldn't we record them? If there's a dispute, they hold all the cards. We wanted to put power back into the hands of the consumer".

But he argues the appeal of the service is much broader than a mere rebalancing of power for the purposes of dispute resolution.

image captionLivescribe pens let you create digital versions of your handwritten notes, as well as recording audio

These days, wearable sensors, such as Fitbit and Nike fuel bands, record our movements and sleep patterns; digital photos uploaded to social networking sites record key moments in our lives; Livescribe pens translate our handwriting into digital text; and closed-circuit television cameras monitor us on the streets.

"We see recording spoken conversations as just the next part of this journey," Mr Newton says.

"ARGOsearch will help people turn hundreds of thousands of hours of unstructured conversational data into something useful and valuable."

But James Barford, telecoms analyst at Enders Analysis, warns that consumers may need some convincing before voice recording goes mainstream.

"There are clear applications for this technology in certain industries, particularly financial services, but it stretches the imagination as to how useful this may be for consumers at large.

"Mobile phone call minutes actually dropped 2% in the final quarter of 2012, as people are communicating more by email, text, Twitter and Facebook these days.

"But I'm heartened that there is innovation going on in this sector given that voice technology has largely stood still over the last ten years."

Erik Snider, director of corporate communications at NICE Systems, says the company is not currently considering extending their recording and analysis services to consumers.

"We're all in favour of empowering the consumer, but at the moment they can already demand to have any recorded phone call played back to them, so the question is what would be the business case of offering a consumer call-recording service?" he says.

"The regulations in the area of consumer protection are always changing and complex, so one of our focuses remains on providing solutions to enterprises which help them remain compliant with these regulations."

Calltrunk certainly isn't focusing on the consumer market alone, and has a few global investment banks among its clients as well.

One of the reasons it recently secured nearly £2m in investment funding was the potential to outsource the ARGOsearch programme to big corporates.

Is it legal?

Another potential issue is consumer concern or confusion over the legality of recording voice calls.

Calltrunk maintains that when recording conversations for private purposes - as long as that recording is not shared with a third party - only one person needs to be aware of, and consent to, the recording.

Anthony Lee, data protection and privacy expert at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, agrees, but only up to a point.

"This does not apply if you want to use a third party, such as a cloud service-provider, to store recordings, particularly if sensitive personal data is involved, or if the recording is to be stored on servers which are located outside of the European Economic Area," he says.

"The informed consent and, sometimes, the explicit consent of the individual or individuals concerned, will typically be required. It will be interesting to see the practice which emerges here."

image captionRecording conversations you are involved in is one thing. Recording other people - which used to be done with machines like this one - without their consent is illegal in many countries without a court order

Calltrunk disagrees and believes the law is analogous to that covering email, which, technically speaking, requires the consent of the sender before you can forward it. Practically no-one does this.

What is certain is that the law differs considerably from country to country. In the UK, Canada, and some states in the US, this so-called 'one party consent' is adequate (but businesses in the UK must tell people that calls are being recorded).

In other words, before recording anything it is important to check what the legal situation is where you live.

Voice recognition and phones have had a troubled relationship over the years.

The technology can struggle to cope with background noise and some regional accents, resulting in accuracy rates too low to make services acceptable to a mass audience.

Apple's Siri voice recognition application, powered by Nuance, has certainly taken things to the next level, but there is still a long way to go. Calltrunk's word indexation accuracy is around 80%.

So a personalised Google for voice calls may still be a little way off, but there is no doubt new technologies could make us think differently about our phone conversations.

Next stop a Wikipedia for the spoken word?