The World of Voice Mail  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   September 1998

The World of Voice Mail   

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER'S SERIES on Chiquita Brands International was based in part on more than 2,000 taped voice mail messages left for Chiquita executives.
How the Enquirer got the messages is still not entirely clear. Enquirer reporter Mike Gallagher, one of the series' authors, was fired on June 26 after he refused to discuss specific details as to how he obtained password-protected voice mail messages. The Enquirer says he stole them. Gallagher and his lawyer will not comment.
The incident, now under criminal investigation, raises two questions: How easy is it to get into voice mail, and what are the ethics of using one-sided voice mail messages, even if legally obtained, in news stories?
Voice mail is a relatively insecure, computer-controlled system where users choose their own passwords (usually four digits but sometimes up to 15). Voice mail experts say company systems are generally set up so passwords can be changed by users only, and no one person has access to all employee mailboxes.
``Passwords are the key to voice mail,'' says Susan Sarles, voice messaging operations manager for Cincinnati Bell for nine years. ``They are what keep the messages under lock and key.''
While system administrators may set up a voice mail system, they don't know passwords, says Sarles, who is familiar with Lucent Technologies' systems, one of which Chiquita uses. As a general rule, Lucent does not allow system administrators to have the ability to change passwords.
One reason it's sometimes easy to get into someone else's voice mail is that many people choose passwords that are easy to remember--their birth dates, a child's birth date, a telephone extension, a nickname--and in some cases easy to guess.
People often use four digits, the minimum required. The odds of guessing someone's four-digit password in one attempt are one in 10,000--fairly high odds if you are trying to punch in thousands of combinations. But if you use a simple computer code-breaking program, it can quickly try all 10,000 possibilities and determine the password.
For this reason, voice mail experts suggest users change their passwords once a month, never give them out and use more than four digits.
But what if a reporter has taped copies of voice mail messages leaked to him? He is not stealing information but accepting information leaked by someone inside a company. Legally, such as in the case of the Pentagon Papers, that's very different. But even if taped voice mail messages are legally received, how good a source of information is the contents?
Having had his own voice messaging box broken into, Chiquita General Counsel Robert Olson makes an interesting point. He says voice mails are the rawest form of data. They are often works-in-progress rather than final thoughts, and therefore less definitive than, say, corporate or government documents. Also, a voice mail message is only one side of the story, and it can easily be taken out of context.
Bruce Shapiro, who teaches journalism at Yale University and writes a column for The Nation, agrees there's a risk that voice mail messages can be excerpted out of context--just like interviews and memos.
Shapiro, who praises much of the reporting in the Chiquita package, is emphatic that ``reporters should not be in the business of wiretapping.'' He says, ``I think Gallagher hacking into Chiquita's system was both wrong and foolish, and gave Chiquita leverage to utterly discredit a valuable, well-documented exposé.''
But, he adds, ``It's also important to say that if an official of a corrupt corporation dropped a satchel of executive voice memos on my desk, I'd listen to those tapes hard, and not hesitate to build a story around them if the tapes could be authenticated. Just as I would if the executive had left a folder of memos instead of voice cassettes.''

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