• United States



They ARE Listening: Law Enforcement Wiretapping Jumps 34%

Jul 07, 20114 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

3,194 wiretaps were authorized by state and federal courts in 2010, a 34% increase of law enforcement wiretapping than the previous year. 96% of the wiretaps were for intercepting communications over portable devices.

They are listening. They are intercepting more phone calls, text messages, and computer transmissions than ever. In fact, 96% of all authorized wiretaps in 2010 were for “portable devices.” The 2009 wiretap report showed that police wiretaps shot up 26%, but law enforcement authorized wiretapping jumped another 34% in 2010. The wiretap report usually comes out in April, but it was months late this year. The Administrative Office of United States Courts finally released the 2010 Wiretap Report on June 30th.

A total of 3,194 wiretaps were authorized by federal and state courts during 2010. 1,207 wiretaps were authorized by federal judges, up 16% from 2009, and 1,987 intercepts were authorized by judges in 25 states which is up 16% from 2009. The average number of people whose communications were intercepted jumped to 118 per wiretap order in 2010 with 26% of the wiretapped communications labeled as incriminating. Only one wiretap application was denied in 2010.

84% of all intercepted communications, 2,675 wiretaps, were related to narcotics investigations. The report suggests the wiretapping numbers are higher this year due to enhanced efforts to make state and federal authorities aware of their responsibility to report their interception efforts. While fighting terrorism is often listed as a reason to continually kick aside the Fourth Amendment and loosen requirements needed to engage in lawful surveillance, I saw no mention of any of these wiretaps resulting in catching terrorists. Oh wait, how could I forget after the many and varied examples, most spying by law enforcement agencies seems to be done as warrantless surveillance. The numbers reflected in the 2010 wiretapping report do not include subpoenas or warrants to spy upon email or other data stored in the cloud.

There were only six instances where law enforcement encountered encryption, but none of those prevented authorities from obtaining plain text of the communications. “Roving” wiretaps use “relaxed specifications” to “target specific persons by using electronic devices at multiple locations rather than a specific telephone or location.” In 2010, after showing probable cause, there was one federal roving wiretap approved and 17 state-authorized roving wiretaps reported.

The three major methods of surveillance are wire, oral, and electronic communications. Table 6 breaks the surveillance down even more. There were 2,311 orders which resulted in intercepts being installed. 97% of all wiretaps were phone related. These 2,253 wire intercepts included all types of telephone calls from landline, to cellular, to cordless, to mobile. The 15 reported intercepts by oral spying included surveillance collected by microphones and eavesdropping. There were 16 electronic intercepts that could be classified as digital, pager, fax, or computer. 27 intercepts were a combination of methods. 4,711 people were arrested based on these types of surveillance, but only 17% or 800 people were convicted.

Most wiretaps were originally authorized for an average of 29 days, but 1,925 extensions were requested and authorized in 2010 which is a 18% increase from 2009. While the installed wiretaps were in operation for an average length of 40 days, one narcotics investigation in the Southern District of California ran 201 days and intercepted 74,715 cell phone messages. Another 62-day cell phone wiretap grabbed 134,410 messages. “The longest state wiretap, which was used in a narcotics investigation conducted by Queens County, New York, was employed for a total of 559 days.” Yet another wiretap in New York, used for a corruption investigation, lasted for 540 days. A long wiretap in Georgia lasted 415 days and intercepted 88,518 phone conversations and text messages. Prosecutors said the Georgia investigation “uncovered incriminating cellular telephone communications that led to the seizure of $3,304,711 in cash, 48 kilos of cocaine, 60 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, and 600 pounds of marijuana.”

Wiretapping isn’t cheap. The average costs for intercept devices in 2010 was $50,085 while the average cost for federal wiretaps was $63,566. State authorized wiretaps ranged in cost from $68 to $1,697,030. Judges in California, New York and New Jersey topped the list for the largest number of approved wiretap applications. As stated earlier, drug investigations used the most wiretaps, followed by investigations into homicide and then racketeering.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.