Integrity Languages


The problem with receiving interpreting via mobile apps

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 4, 2018

We are all getting used to doing everything online. As a father of three (with one on the way), it is hard to explain just how important online shopping, online flight check-in and online travel booking have become. Yet, for all the leaps we have seen in technology, there are some things that should really stay offline.

Take high-level meetings. For all the deserved concern about the environmental costs of transport, it is still pretty normal to see a businessman from New Zealand fly to mainland Europe to discuss a deal with a company whose representatives might come from different ends of the same country.

Despite Skype and Telegram and Whatsapp, the big, important meetings still take place in person. There’s just something about being in a room together that makes a difference. And there is something about the security of knowing that no-one outside that room can hear what is going on.

For important meetings, privacy and security are a huge concerns. That’s why interpreters sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. That’s why, as a consultant interpreter, I have a public key so I can receive encrypted files. That’s why, for the moment at least, I would recommend that clients keep with the tried-and-tested system of receiving simultaneous interpreting via an infrared (IR) setup and eschew receiving interpreting via mobile phone apps.

This recommendation holds even if every other part of the interpreting process is carried out following best practice.

It’s not that the technology isn’t impressive. It is still amazing that we can and do beam high-quality sound (like podcasts) across continents and can use Wi-Fi networks for sending interpreting and receiving output. But, for meetings where security is a concern, you just can’t beat the advantages of the traditional IR setup. How so?

Unlike Wi-Fi, the traditional setup requires proprietary equipment. It sounds old-school but if the only way to hear the interpreting is with a headset that you get from the sound guy, only people who talk to the sound guy can get a headset. That instantly makes things more secure and, as anyone who has used traditional interpreting equipment will tell you, the signal simply does not leave the room. If you go out of the line of sight of the transmitter, you lose signal. What sounds like a restriction ensures that your meeting is secure.

Since the headsets are dedicated to a single use, they tend to do well at keeping their charge all day. Compare that to any mobile phone, which your delegates will use to listen to the interpreting, check their email, update Facebook and so on, and the difference is clear. For mobile apps to be feasible, the event will need LOTS of mobile phone charging points. Very modern but pretty pricey.

Having delegates receive interpreting through an app also means that you lose control of the security of the feed. Not only is it hard work for the tech to receive, encrypt, broadcast, decrypt and play the signal in real-time (so it is tempting to skip the encryption and decryption parts) but you can’t guarantee what else might be on the mobiles used by your delegates. You simply can’t tell what security risks they are carrying.

The solution might be to  hand out dedicated mobile phones that you have configured. That comes with its own costs means that you will suddenly have lots of internet-enabled devices to maintain, update, fix, and teach delegates to use. That’s before you take account of delegates having special needs that they have setup their own devices to cope with.

As with remote interpreting, the problems with receiving interpreting using the internet are mostly not technical but psychological and behavioural. Even if the tech for receiving interpreting over app was 100% secure, there are too many other variables for it to be an ideal solution for any meeting where security is a concern, at least for the time being.


4 comments on “The problem with receiving interpreting via mobile apps

  1. I think in any setting anyone can have a pocket recorder on (or smartphone). Even tiny pin hole cameras are readily available online.

    Removing smartphone from the equation doesn’t change anything or help.

    If someone wants to record something they hear, current technology makes it extremely easy, no matter what the set up is.

    Trust and code of ethics for the interpreters is all that’s needed. If I’m worried certain delegates will record my extremely confidential speech, why am I inviting him to listen to it? Warm regards,
    Jacob T. Högh
    Interpreter-relations manager, Stadelhoferstrasse 12, CH-8001 Zürich

    • I would have to disagree with you. While recording devices are available, it is undeniable that smartphone apps are inherently less secure than IR. And the issue is, of course, not about delegates who have permission to be in the room recording things but those who should not be in the room being able to do so. It’s not about the interpreters’ ethics but about those of competitors, who may be nearby and listen.

      Not all interpreting needs that security but, with current wi-fi tech, IR still offers a more stable platform for delivery. It also tends to be less taxing on power resources too.

  2. Jonathan,

    I wonder. What portion of interpreting, as a business, involves such concern for security?

    I would say that no one approach would be satisfactory for every situation. IR only addresses in-person situations.

    As to apps – I’m not a fan of Wi-Fi in general. It can be great, but can just as easily be dreadful. Nothing like a room full of people with iPads and smart phones to tax Wi-Fi infrastructure. I expect that variability can be troublesome for in-person conferences using mobile apps.

    RI is best used to accommodate purely virtual situations, where all participants are on the phone/computer/video. It has the most potential to increase the use of interpreters between physical gatherings.

    • I would absolutely agree with you. There is no universal approach. And so we need to prepare for a future of many technologies, not just one.

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