2014 has been a big year for dictaphones so far.
First, it was France and the secret recordings made by Patrick Buisson during the reign of President Sarkozy.
Then, a US court ordered the release of the confidential Boston College tapes, part of an oral history project. Originally, each participant had agreed their recording would only be released after their death. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was arrested and questioned over a period of 100 hours and released without charge.
Now Australia is taking its turn. In #dictagate down under, a senior political correspondent from a respected newspaper recorded (most likely with consent) some off-the-record comments of former conservative leader Ted Baillieu. Unfortunately, this journalist misplaced the dictaphone at the state conference of Baillieu's arch-rivals, the ALP. A scandal quickly errupted.
Secure recording technology
There is no question that electronic voice recordings can be helpful for people, including journalists, researchers, call centers and many other purposes. However, the ease with which they can now be distributed is only dawning on people.
Twenty years ago, you would need to get the assistance of a radio or TV producer to disseminate such recordings so widely. Today there is email and social media. The Baillieu tapes were emailed directly to 400 people in a matter of minutes.
Just as technology brings new problems, it also brings solutions. Encryption is one of them.
Is encryption worthwhile?
Coverage of the Snowden revelations has revealed that many popular security technologies are not one hundred percent safe. In each of these dictaphone cases, however, NSA-level expertise was not a factor. Even the most simplistic encryption would have caused endless frustration to the offenders who distributed the Baillieu tape.
How can anybody be sure encryption is reliable?
Part of the problem is education. Everybody using the technology needs to be aware of the basic concepts, for example, public key cryptography.
Another big question mark is back doors. There is ongoing criticism of Apple iPhone/iPod devices and the many ways that their encryption can be easily disabled by Apple engineers and presumably many former staff, security personnel and others. The message is clear: proprietary, closed-source solutions should be avoided. Free and open source technologies are the alternative. If a company does not give you the source code, how can anybody independently audit their code for security? With encryption software, what use is it if nobody has verified it?
What are the options?
However, given that the majority of people don't have a PhD in computer science or mathematics, are there convenient ways to get started with encryption?
Reading is a good start. The Code Book by Simon Singh (author of other popular science books like Fermat's Last Theorem) is very accessible, not classified and assumes no formal training in mathematics. Even for people who do know these topics inside out, it is a good book to share with friends and family.
The Guardian Project (no connection with Guardian Media of Edward Snowden fame) aims to provide a secure and easy to use selection of apps for pocket devices. This project has practical applications in business, journalism and politics alike.
How should a secure dictaphone app work?
Dictaphone users typically need to take their dictaphones in the field, so there is a risk of losing it or having it stolen. A strong security solution in this situation may involve creating an RSA key pair on a home/office computer, keeping the private key on the home computer and putting the public key on the dictaphone device. Configured this way, the dictaphone will not be able to play back any of the recordings itself - the user will always have to copy them to the computer for decryption.