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From my understanding, hearing aids work the following way:

  1. a microphone picks up nearby sounds
  2. a miniature computer stores the sound data in ram and processes the sound
  3. the processed sound is then sent to the amplifier, then to the speaker, then to the ear

However, I thought that the first 2 steps would be considered illegal in general, for e.g. digitally recording a conversation without consent of the other party.

So I was wondering how hearing aids became legal for everyday use. For example, is it that:

  1. hearing aids were added as a special exemption to the law? If so, what was the legal process/history behind getting this approved?
  2. the way hearing aids process the sound makes it legal (like perhaps not storing any audio data to any disk)? If so, what are the exact details of this?
  3. people with disability are allowed to digitally record audio without the other consent? So even though hearing aids are illegal, the people with difficult hearing can still use them?

edit: I'm specifically asking about the U.S. in general, but am also curious about how laws outside of U.S. interpret this as well

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    You'll have to specify a jurisdiction to get a complete answer. That said, legal systems usually look at the overall effect of a process or action, rather than the specific details of its implementation. The purpose of laws on recordings is to forbid making recordings that can be played back at a (macroscopically) later time. Hearing aids can't do that; if they do in fact play back their "recording" at a later time, that time is on the order of milliseconds, not on human time scales. Mar 1 at 7:35
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    Your description is true of modern hearing aids. Traditional designs are analogue, with a microphone, filters (like an equaliser on a hifi) and an amplifier. They lack any hint of storage capability. That's what was likely current when laws on recording were written, so they were irrelevant because they couldn't record. (NB there were some neck-worn hearing amplifiers that could record to cassette tapes - my grandfather had one around 1990, but the typical hearing aids prescribed by an audiologist were far too small for the recording tech of the day)
    – Chris H
    Mar 1 at 16:07
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    computer stores the sound data in ram - is that a recording?
    – Mazura
    Mar 1 at 19:30
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    Note that one of the key design points of hearing aids is that the wearer doesn't experience a perceptible delay in hearing sounds (they would be a safety hazard otherwise). Input and output are as close to simultaneous as possible and there's no persistent data storage, so it's hard to call that process "recording". There might be some incidental storage as part of the digitization process, but that's not really different than a telephone momentarily storing audio as an electric charge traveling across a wire.
    – bta
    Mar 1 at 20:01
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    If it's not stored, it's not a recording, and working memory is not storage.
    – Davor
    Mar 2 at 13:01

3 Answers 3

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California penal code section 632, which prohibits electronic eavesdropping and recording, provides:

(f) This section does not apply to the use of hearing aids and similar devices, by persons afflicted with impaired hearing, for the purpose of overcoming the impairment to permit the hearing of sounds ordinarily audible to the human ear.

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    And presumably somewhere else in that statute is a definition of the term "hearing aid" which must certainly restrict such devices to being non-recording devices. Grandpa's hearing aid, for example, doesn't normally have record and playback functionality - it just amplifies what's happening in the present. Adding such recording functionality would certainly disqualify the device from being considered a "hearing aid".
    – J...
    Mar 1 at 16:45
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    For anyone curious, here is the definition of hearing aid, although it seems very vague: “Hearing aid” means any wearable instrument or device designed for, or offered for the purpose of, aiding or compensating for impaired human hearing. leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/…. Mar 1 at 18:37
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    @user3067860 Grey area, I think. My granddad is always complaining about his hearing aids because "you can hear a mosquito taking a sh"t at a hundred yards with that f"n thing!" I think that qualifies as "beyond normal hearing".
    – J...
    Mar 1 at 19:56
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    In all my years of wearing custom hearing aids, I have never noticed a delay between the start of the sound and the sound coming out of the hearing aid. Most of the custom hearing aids use electronic processors to compensate or enhance for the User. Generally, they don't have enough memory on them to store full conversations or enough to repeat back. The hearing aid may store sound in order to help eliminate noise or spikes, often called filtering. For recording conversations, there are cheaper means, such as digital voice recorders. Mar 2 at 2:26
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    @J... Grandddad may have been exaggerating.
    – Barmar
    Mar 2 at 15:24
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am also curious about how laws outside of U.S. interpret this as well

In the UK it is legal to make recordings for personal use.

According to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), recording conversations without consent in the UK is legal provided the recording is done for personal use; this includes telephone conversations.

You just can't publish them or share them with others:

However, problems can arise when such recorded conversations are shared with third parties without the consent of the participants of the conversation. It is an offence to sell recorded conversations to third parties or make such conversations public without the participant’s consent in the conversation.

Source: https://recordinglaw.com/recording-laws-uk/

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RAM is what's known as "volatile" memory. It decays very quickly. When you keep data in memory, your computer is actually constantly copying the data back into memory to keep it from disappearing. So this is not putting the data in any permanent fixed medium.

An argument could probably also be made that the ADA takes priority over any state law that impairs anyone in mitigating their disability without a compelling state interest.

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    Has such an argument been made?
    – T.J.L.
    Mar 2 at 19:49
  • @T.J.L. I've never heard of any court holding that using a hearing aid constitutes illegal recording. It isn't something that the vast majority of lawyers would even think to argue.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 2 at 22:59
  • @T.J.L. : Not only has such an argument been made, it's codified in Dutch law. That does not restrict itself to RAM specifically, it includes all kinds of caches and processing buffers. There's an additional exception for the legally blind, where accessible copies do not have to be temporary in nature. It would be easy to argue in court that new technology benefitting the deaf should be treated along the same lines.
    – MSalters
    Mar 3 at 8:57
  • @MSalters I was attempting to (perhaps too subtly) prompt the author to improve the answer. The first paragraph doesn't address the question, and the second leads with "could probably".
    – T.J.L.
    Mar 3 at 13:07

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