Telephone Recording Laws

Telephone Recording Laws

In the United States, each state has its own laws regarding the recording of phone calls, while recording of interstate calls is governed by federal law, most notably the Federal Wiretapping Act. In some cases, taping is legal with the consent of both parties, but the laws can be complex and open to arcane interpretations. Recording of conversations has played an important role in American political and legal history, from Watergate and other presidential scandals to lesser-known cases.

President Richard M. Nixon's illegal taping of private conversations figured prominently in the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, although in fact, presidents have been recording conversations for as long as such technology has been available. In the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, involving President William J. Clinton's sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his attempts to cover it up, key evidence came from conversations between Lewinsky and her friend Linda Tripp—conversations Tripp recorded without telling Lewinsky. Such was the depth of Americans' resentment toward the threat of privacy invasion (combined with popular liking for the affable Clinton) that Tripp become the focus of far greater condemnation than did the President.

In 1997, secretly made tapes of Texaco executives furnished proof of racial discrimination, and led the company to settle a $176 million lawsuit.

Although Justice Louis Brandeis described wiretapping as "evil" in Olmstead v. United States (1928; 277 U.S. 438), the federal government has, in the view of many civil liberties groups, at best a questionable record in this area. Since the 1970s, a backlash against domestic surveillance and intelligence efforts has reduced the power of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law-enforcement authorities in this area. As for telephone recording by individuals, this is subject to some form of criminal penalty in all 50 states, and at the federal level. However, the Federal Wiretapping Act does allow telephone service providers, business owners, and consenting parties to record calls under certain circumstances.



Cloud, David S., and David Rogers. "Telecom Firms Lobby for Funding of Upgrades to Ease Surveillance." Wall Street Journal. (April 5, 2000): A4.

Halbfinger, David M. "Mother and Lawyer Charged in Sale of 10-Week Old Baby." New York Times. (March 30, 1999): 4.

McCarter, Kimberly M. "Tape Recording Interviews." Marketing Research 8, no. 3 (fall 1996): 50–51.

Skoning, Gerald. "Be Careful Not to 'Tripp'." HR Magazine 43, no. 6 (May 1998): 125–30.


Domestic Intelligence
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review
Privacy: Legal and Ethical Issues
Telephone Recording System
Telephone Tap Detector

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