Oral History and Confidentiality

I’m occasionally asked if oral history interviews can be conducted confidentially.

Recognizing that my attitude on this matter may represent one extreme among practitioners of oral history, I will not do confidential interviews.

I simply don’t believe that I can protect confidentiality with 100% certainty, and I will not promise something that I can’t be sure to deliver.


For a few reasons. Among them is the fact that federal regulations have determined that a voiceprint is a personal identifier.[1]

I am not a lawyer, but as I understand it, these regulations mean that a voiceprint taken from a recording can be connected to a specific individual, even if the individual is not named.

To rephrase: if the person’s voice is recorded, that person can be identified, even if no names are used.

Furthermore, while voiceprint techniques may be relatively uncommon today, we cannot predict future technological developments. Someday it may be a trivial matter to connect a voice recording to a specific individual. For that reason, it strikes me as irresponsible to promise confidentiality for interviews that will ultimately reside in an archive.

Finally, the Boston College Belfast Oral History Project disaster has made it very plain that U.S. oral historians and archives can only maintain confidentiality to the extent made possible under American law. If a court wants an oral history recording, they are very likely to get it.[2]

Don’t believe me? Ask Winston Rea, who’s Boston College interview was taken — without his permission and despite commitments from Boston College that the recording would not be released until after his death — from Boston to Ireland as the result of a court order, last week.[3] It appears very likely that detectives there will eventually listen to the recording, searching for clues or evidence of crimes associated with the violence that plagued Northern Ireland before the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

It is absolutely true that the risk associated with conducting an oral history is minimal. Most oral history topics don’t involve crimes or other things that will be of interest to law enforcement or other official entities.

But, in my view, oral historians should not mislead interviewees in to believing that we can protect an individual’s identity from disclosure. It can happen.

It has.

Guidance Regarding Methods for De-identification of Protected Health Information in Accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule. Accessed January 6, 2015. http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/hipaa/understanding/coveredentities/De-identification/guidance.html

[2] Beth McMurtrie, “Secrets from Belfast: How Boston College’s Oral History of the Troubles Fell Victim to an International Murder Investigation,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 26, 2014. Accessed January 6, 2015. http://chronicle.com/article/Secrets-from-Belfast/144059/

[3] Alan Erwin, “Boston tapes will not be held in US Consulate in Belfast,” Irish Times http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/boston-tapes-will-not-be-held-in-us-consulate-in-belfast-1.2104418, published Sat, Feb 14, 2015, 14:44, via https://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/2015/02/14/boston-tapes-will-not-be-held-in-us-consulate-in-belfast/ Accessed Feb. 20, 2015.