4

If someone built a virtual assistant like Jarvis from Iron Man it would need to make outgoing phone calls to be effective. For instance, if you wanted it to make a doctor's appointment for you it would need to be able to call out and have the conversation with the receptionist that does scheduling.

In order to do that it would need to process the audio, transcribe it, and then store the response so that you could put it in your calendar. My question is does this break laws about recording phone conversations?

The fine details:

  • Audio is not stored
  • Phone numbers are not publicly listed
  • Contents of the conversation does not contain personal information or personally identifiable information from the recipient of the call
  • Transcriptions are not made public

Let's just assume for a second that the technology was there so that Siri could make your doctor's appointments for you. Would the technical process behind it breach any laws?

2

Recording phone calls is generally governed by wiretapping law such as 18 USC 2511. The law starts by addressing the proscribed act, which is if one (I'll get to "one" below, which is the crux of the matter)

intentionally intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept, any wire, oral, or electronic communication

The definition of "intercept" is

the aural or other acquisition of the contents of any wire, electronic, or oral communication through the use of any electronic, mechanical, or other device.

A robo-call is send-only, so that action does not acquire anything. Then the question is whether Jarvis is a "device". There is a specific exemption from the definition of "electronic, mechanical, or other device":

(b) a hearing aid or similar device being used to correct subnormal hearing to not better than normal

Jarvis is not covered by (b). Part (a) exempts

any telephone or telegraph instrument...furnished to the subscriber...being used by the subscriber...in the ordinary course of its business... or (ii) being used by a provider of wire or electronic communication service

which we can assume is not the case with Jarvis (the provider does not supply the device): Jarvis is a device, and Jarvis intercepts.

One way that such interception can legally be accomplished is via consent. At the federal level, it is sufficient that one party consents, though in some states, such as Washington, all parties must consent. Assume that only the federal law is relevant. The law regarding consent says

(d) It shall not be unlawful under this chapter for a person not acting under color of law to intercept a wire, oral, or electronic communication where such person is a party to the communication or where one of the parties to the communication has given prior consent to such interception unless such communication is intercepted for the purpose of committing any criminal or tortious act in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States or of any State.

A program is not a person, so a program cannot consent. However, if we go to the very top of the law, the prohibition starts:

Except as otherwise specifically provided in this chapter any person who...

A program cannot violate the law (laws apply to people), at the moment.

If a program is deemed to be a legal person (either statutorily or by Supreme Court ruling), this all changes, but then Jarvis would have the capacity to consent (unless a program is deemed to be a person incapable of consent, but that would be silly because criminal law is predicated on the assumption that the actor "consented" to do the act). There is currently no statute which criminalizes creating and using Jarvis to make phone calls (imposes a limit on Jarvis's owner).

  • Wow, that is a well documented and clearly written response. Thank you so much! – Phil Andrews Jul 24 '17 at 15:52
  • The discussion of Jarvis' personhood is interesting but irrelevant. The legal actor is Jarvis' owner/controller and that person has consented to the activity. What you do not address is there are laws against unsolicited autodialling which are relevant here. – Dale M Jul 24 '17 at 21:05
  • 1
    Would you be able to expand on that @DaleM? Unsolicited autodialing would pertain to the act of trying to impose unwanted/unexpected communication on the recipient. In the example of making a doctor's appointment wouldn't the doctor's office be expecting exactly that type of call and therefore be explicitly soliciting them? – Phil Andrews Jul 26 '17 at 15:30

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