Tech Execs Dodge Specter of Voice-Mail Risk

Despite warnings that voice-mail messages could expose them to the same kind of litigation risks as e-mail and other documents, few companies have acknowledged the problem, let alone acted on it.

Lawyers say companies should formulate policies about voice-mail preservation, and server-based PBX technology exists to make the practice relatively easy. But voice-mail preservation seems to be a back-burner issue with many organizations.

Compliance and legal experts, however, are increasingly worried that it will become the next major minefield in corporate court work.

Corporate IT executives appear to be aware of the issue, but also seem to be steering clear of it in discussions with both lawyers and the press.

“Even with all the Sarbanes-Oxley projects we’re doing, I don’t think we’ve looked into guidelines for the use of voice mail,” says Pierre Richer, a senior vice president at NEC Solutions (America). “Why not? That’s a good question.”

He surmised it was because most employees share his view of voice mail.

“With voice mail, when you delete it, it just disappears, and I guess it would be impossible to track,” he says. “I’m assuming that if it’s deleted, it’s not stored anywhere.”

Many corporate citizens believed the same thing about e-mail, until litigants forced one another to dig through backup tapes and other archives to produce incriminating documents.

“Voice mail is no different than e-mail,” warns Alexander Lubarsky, a California lawyer specializing in technology litigation.

Juries and judges don’t look kindly on companies that shred damaging documents and erase similar important e-mails.

“It’s simply an audible message rather than a written message,” Lubarsky says. “Both can be made binary, forwarded and saved. The rules, as they apply to e-mail, should also apply to voice mail.”

However, “this issue has never come up,” says phone-system expert Allan Sulkin, founder and president of TEQConsult Group, who writes requests for proposals for many large companies seeking telephony solutions and teaches classes on the subject nationwide.

“I’ve talked with several thousands of people over the years, and it has not come up,” he says.

Lubarsky agreed voice mail “doesn’t come up a lot” in corporate discussions about document preservation.

“Most people are concerned with e-mail,” he says. “But if a savvy corporate client brings it up, I tell them the prudent thing to do is treat voice mail as you would e-mail and any other discoverable document. And most courts would find it so.”

Unfortunately, there are some big—and problematic—differences between voice and e-mail messages. Saving and retrieving e-mail is relatively easy. E-mail systems are usually server based. E-mails usually consume only tiny amounts of memory.

Next page: How do you search a sound?


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