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Why audio transcription of wire taps is highly challenging

Even though wiretapping has thrown up major challenges to the implementation of the Fourth Amendment as far as public memory goes back, in present times, it is considered valuable forensic evidence when sanctioned by a competent court of law (Title III, Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, 1963).

Using recordings as forensic evidence in a court of law often leads to questions about quality and authenticity of a recording (not to mention challenges in identifying the speakers), and this has led the FBI to develop targeted expertise since the early 1960s to validate the authenticity of such recordings.

United States v. McKeever (1958) is in fact a seminal case where the judge cited seven specific requirements for a recording to be accepted as evidence in a court of law, along with the importance of getting these recordings professionally transcribed.

The different types of audio forensic evidence

legal transcription

Audio forensic evidence can be both overt (obtained with the knowledge of the speakers, for example, recordings of police interviews, field notes by law enforcement personnel or lawyers,

depositions, or testimonies) as well as covert (obtained without the knowledge of the speakers, for example, wiretaps).

Covert audio recordings can be either obtained by intercepting a phone conversation (either landline or mobile) or from a concealed microphone (also known as ambient or environmental recordings).

Typically, transcribing telephone recordings are easier because of the relatively clearer audio quality whereas transcribing audio from a concealed microphone comes with a whole lot of challenges.

Usually, clear audio (or an overt recording) as forensic evidence is accompanied by a comprehensive and high quality transcript that plays the key role of being an aid to a jury’s memory, whereas a transcript of a covert recording, especially when the audio quality is poor, is indispensible and go beyond their role as a memory aid.

6 Major challenges in transcribing wiretaps or covert recordings

1) Background noise is the #1 nemesis

Since wire taps and other covert recordings are generally obtained without the knowledge of the speakers, background noise is one the biggest challenges professional transcribers face when working on these recordings.

Background noise (such as loud surroundings or other interfering noises) can also lead to audio distortion, for example, when a conversation gets heated, leading the speakers to talk faster or indistinctly.

2) Overlapping or indistinct speech

Audio transcriptions of wire taps and covert recordings can be challenging even when the issue of background noise doesn’t loom large. Indistinct speech could be as a result of the speakers holding the conversation at a fair distance from the planted microphone, and overlapping speech is a problem when there are too many speakers in the room, making a transcriber’s task quite trying.

Professional transcribers, however, are well equipped to deal with these challenges and approach such recordings systematically, working to distinguish the speakers, words and building links to produce high-quality audio transcriptions of covert recordings.

3) Other linguistic challenges

Linguistic challenges such as non-native speech, register, or accents add a bit more complexity to the mix. Such aspects of speech are often known to complicate clean recordings and certainly amp up the difficulty-level of transcribing covert recordings.

4) A whole lot of time and patience

Due to the distorted quality of such recordings, transcribers may spend a lot of time listening to the conversation over and over again to identify the speakers as well as the words spoken.

Naturally, transcribing a clean recording will take lesser time than transcribing a covert recording of the same duration due to the involvement of various extraneous factors.

5) Cognitive bias

Audio transcription of covert recordings are often primarily obtained for the police for investigative purposes (generally when all other methods of obtaining information have been exhausted) and transcribed by law enforcement transcribers involved with the case.

This could potentially introduce issues of cognitive bias, that is, a law enforcement transcriber may essentially produce an output that reflects what they wanted to hear rather than what they should have heard.

This is why when a covert recording has been vetted for authenticity and deemed as important evidence for a trial, second opinions are encouraged and the involvement of a professional transcription company becomes indispensable.

6) Maintaining confidentiality

While this is certainly not a technical skill that transcribers require, maintaining confidentiality about a transcribed document is an inalienable part of such projects. For this reason, a professional transcription company often signs non-disclosure agreements when taking on such projects.

Audio transcribers of wiretaps and covert recordings are highly-skilled and multifaceted professionals

Overall, audio transcription of covert recordings without a doubt needs the involvement of highly skilled transcribers who are not only experts in the technical aspect of audio transcription but also keen analysts constantly looking for innovative ways of adding value to such high-stake tasks.

And, such multi-skilled transcribers are hard to find in the wild as most professional transcription companies scramble to hire them!

Need to get a challenging recording professionally transcribed? Talk to us!