Live Listen – iPad feature that can be your listening device arising the need for national reform

Live Listen on iPad

A less known feature on Apple iOS devices like your iPad or iPhone has gone viral lately after the discovery it allows conversations to be heard up to 15 metres away, even from different rooms. The feature is called ‘Live Listen’, and requires an iPad or iPhone running iOS 12, and a pair of Apple AirPod headphones or an Apple-certified hearing aid. Once enabled, the feature causes the iPhone or iPad to act like a microphone, capturing audio and sending it to the AirPods or other device. The purpose of the feature is to assist those with hearing impairments, or people who struggle to hear conversations in certain environments.

Live Listen becoming an iSpy

Live Listen

But this feature with the ability to eavesdrop on conversations occurring up to 15 metres away has been met with concern from some commentators, who worry about the potential for people to so readily spy on others. Such use or misuse also brings into sharp focus Australia’s inconsistent patchwork of State and Territory based surveillance device legislation.

Key factors that can determine the use of Live Listen to breach applicable surveillance device legislation

Each State and Territory has its own surveillance device legislation which applies variously to different devices, prohibits different activities, and provides for different defences. Despite these inconsistencies, these various laws all have at least one thing in common – they regulate the use of listening devices.

Live Listen

Listening device is an instrument, apparatus or equipment that is capable of being used to record or listen to a conversation but with the exception of hearing aids, which are specifically exempted from the ambit of each State and Territory law.

Also unlike some other kinds of surveillance devices regulated by these laws like ‘tracking devices’ under the Victorian Surveillance Devices Act 1999, the definition of ‘listening device’ is not subject to a ‘primary purpose’ or similar qualification.

This suggests that devices that are not specifically designed to be used as eavesdropping devices and, indeed, that may have many other functions or uses – such as iPhones, iPads and AirPods – can still be ‘listening devices’ under these laws. This feature thus is now emphasising the need for national reform.

What is the regulation of surveillance devices in Australia?

Privacy Act Australia

The regulation of surveillance devices in Australia is a patchwork of inconsistent State and Territory laws, which each variously regulate different devices, prohibit different activities and provide for different defences.

Despite calls from the Australian Law Reform Commission to create a uniform national law, this has not occurred to date.  Multi-purpose devices such as an iPhone or iPad may constitute a listening device and fall under the remit of surveillance device legislation, if it is capable of being used to record or listen to a conversation.

Legally you cannot use a listening device.This prohibition may be overcome in certain circumstances, though what those circumstances are depends on the user’s location.

Live Listen Feature on iPad

The most common exception is the consent of one participant (or in some States and Territories, all participants) to the conversation. This consent exception is only available if the user is a party to the conversation. That is, the general prohibition on using listening devices applies to the use of a listening device to overhear a conversation to which the user is not a party. Also exceptions to the prohibition also exist for the use of listening devices by law enforcement.

While all jurisdictions allow for the use of listening devices with consent, they differ as to the nature of that consent. Like in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory, a person can lawfully use a listening device if he or she is a party to the conversation – i.e., the person does not require the consent of any other participants to the conversation.

Live listen feature

In New South Wales, the ACT, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia a person can lawfully use a listening device if he or she is a party to the conversation, and they have the consent of all ‘principal parties’ to the conversation (i.e., those by or to whom words are spoken); or a person can use a listening device if a principal party (or, in the case of South Australia, a party to the conversation) consents to the use of the listening device, and the surveillance is reasonably necessary for the protection of the lawful interests of that party.

In New South Wales, the ACT and Tasmania, a person can use a listening device if a principal party consents to the use of the listening device, and the surveillance is not carried out for the purpose of publishing or communicating the conversation (or a report of the conversation) to persons who were not party to the conversation.

There are also public interest exemptions for the use of listening devices in some jurisdictions. This is clearly an area of law in need of national reform. In September 2014, the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended that existing State and Territory surveillance device laws be replaced by a single Commonwealth law. But this reform is yet to eventuate, as you struggle with the outdated legislation and rapid advances in technology. ( news source: Lexology)