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From what I have read it is illegal for the National Transportation Safety Board to release Cockpit Voice Recordings, while they are allowed to release its transcripts.

From AirDisaster:

It is illegal for the National Transportation Safety Board, who regulates these recordings, to release them to the public.

From NTSB:

The transcript, containing all pertinent portions of the recording, can be released to the public at the time of the Safety Board's public hearing.

Why? What's the issue with releasing Cockpit Voice Recordings?

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    $\begingroup$ probably some arcane regulation about recording in a "private" work environment that is not allowed to be released without consent of who is in the recording $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Jan 3 '15 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak But according to airdisaster.com/cvr : "The airlines, who own the original recording, are legally allowed to release it if they so choose. ". So apparently the consent of who is in the recording is not required. $\endgroup$ – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 3 '15 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ or they got permission in the pilot's contract $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Jan 3 '15 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak Good point! $\endgroup$ – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 3 '15 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ Crew may discuss very embarrassing topics about other people: "My brother Jim told me that he had a gay affair with governor Brown for six months... oops what was that?..." Do we release this recording because at the same time we listen in the background a sound that is critical to the current investigation? $\endgroup$ – mins Mar 28 '15 at 10:59
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From NTSB site, regarding FOIA requests:

"Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) tapes. Title 49 U.S.C. § 1114(c) prohibits the release of any CVR tape. However, the NTSB may release a CVR transcript (edited or unedited), in accordance with 49 U.S.C. § 1114(c)(1)."

Transcripts may be disclosed, but not 'tapes'. Which makes sense, as transcripts may be edited to remove parts that are not meaningful for the investigation, but can be unnecessary intrusions into private life.

In addition, when the NTSB is participating to foreign investigations:

Records or information relating to the NTSB's participation in foreign aircraft accident investigations. 49 U.S.C. § 1114(f) prohibits the release of this information before the country conducting the investigation releases its report or 2 years following the accident, whichever occurs first

See 49 U.S. Code § 1114 - Disclosure, availability, and use of information

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. Privacy issues are what I thought at first, but I'm surprised that they can't edit the voice recordings as well (just blanking any private discussions of no interest for the public). IMHO transcribing is a quite lossy process: much information such as the intonations, voice intelligibility, emotions, etc. cannot be well transcribed. $\endgroup$ – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 3 '15 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ What I think, but this is just an opinion, is that the tone of the voice, the delivery, the breathing difficulties, etc, are intimate information about the individual, which may be not meaningful for the investigation. In that case, it is not necessary to inform the public about crew feelings that can be misunderstood by uninformed or disrespectful persons (this is where it may become private life intrusion). Transcripts only seems good. $\endgroup$ – mins Jan 3 '15 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ I think @mins has a great point: the Apollo 1 recordings were reportedly hard to listen to, and the fairly recent KFDK collision ATC recordings were taken down by many sites. Those might be extreme examples, but the point that some things just don't need a wider audience out of respect is a good one. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jan 4 '15 at 0:49
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They're also extraordinarily harrowing. If you ever do read the transcripts, try and imagine them taking place between two or more pilots trying to deal with a deadly situation for themselves and their passengers. While accompanied by the background noise of violent maneuvering, alarms or engines screaming or indeed engines on fire or exploding. Or in really bad cases, hijackers yelling commands. Or if things are really bad, all of the above. And then often finishing with the sound of a plane impacting the ground, cutting off suddenly and being replaced by an ominous silence. I personally would not want to hear such a recording.

I've seen a transcript which ends with one of the pilots yelling "I love you mom!" just before their plane hits the ground, killing everyone on board...

Finally on a more practical note, pilots use a lot of jargon and abbreviations, some of which is specific to the model of aircraft being flown. If you don't know what a flight level is, or what ATC or approach are, or which check-list they're talking about, then they can sound and read like gibberish. And that's assuming they're speaking English. Flight crews talk in their native tongues whilst flying and not talking on the radio. So for example a recording from an Air France flight would be largely in French.

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  • $\begingroup$ The aviation jargon would be just as jargony in a transcript... $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Mar 27 '15 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ Any links out there of actual recordings $\endgroup$ – Firee Mar 27 '15 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ +1 As an avionics tech, I heard CVR recordings (during safety briefings) of a couple ground incidents involving loss of life. It's not pleasant. $\endgroup$ – Geobits Mar 27 '15 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ There are CVR recordings which have been released though, although not by the US as per regulations. It's more more harrowing than the final words of someone calling the police before seeing their family killed, or a home video someone makes that catches a horrific accident. $\endgroup$ – forest Jun 23 at 5:51

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