There were more than 2,000 wiretaps orders and authorizations that were issued in 2018, and court reports reveal that a single wire-tap has intercepted more than 9.2 million text messages.
The total number of court-authorized wiretapping operations by the police reaches 2,937 in 2018 with 1,457 authorized by federal judges and 1,480 authorized by state judges. Despite what seems to be a vast number of wiretap approved by the courts, the total for 2018 decreased by 18% compared to the 2017 data. United States Court’s Annual Wiretap Report further reveals that only two wiretap applications were denied in 2018.
There forty-eight jurisdictions (the federal government, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and 44 states) that currently have laws authorizing courts to issue orders permitting wire, oral, or electronic surveillance.
Among all these jurisdictions, 111 separate local jurisdictions (including counties, cities, and judicial districts) reported wiretap applications for 2018 with a significant concentration on six states such as California, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New Jersey — which equals to 82% of all wiretap requests in 2018.
Meanwhile, a single Texas wiretap operation has successfully collected more than 9.2 million text messages from 149 individuals who were involved in the case and were targeted by the wiretap.
The wiretap, granted by a federal judge in the Southern District of Texas, and was approved in order to aid an anti-narcotics operations. This specific case accounted to the most wiretap intercepts in 2018.
The police were able to intercept a total 9,208,906 messages in 120 days from the targets.
The second largest wiretap operation in 2018 was another narcotics investigation in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania saw police obtain a three-month wiretap that collected 9.1 million text message from 45 individuals.
In both cases, no arrests were made.
“Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of criminal offenses investigated using reported wiretaps,” reads the court’s report. [Data] indicates that 46 percent of all applications for intercepts (1,354 wiretap applications) in 2018 cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation. Applications citing narcotics combined with applications citing other offenses, which include other offenses related to drugs, accounted for 77 percent of all reported wiretap applications in 2018, the same as in 2017.”
Wiretapping is a method of surveillance that is often slammed for being invasive, where a wiretap device is “tapped” on the “wires” of the communication devices (phones, cellphones, emails, etc.). Legal wiretapping by a government agency is also called lawful interception. With the legacy public switched telephone network (PSTN), wireless, and cable systems, lawful interception (LI) was generally performed by accessing the mechanical or digital switches supporting the targets’ calls. The introduction of packet switched networks, softswitch technology, and server-based applications the past two decades fundamentally altered how LI is undertaken.
Lawful interception differs from the dragnet-type mass surveillance sometimes done by intelligence agencies, where all data passing a fiber-optic splice or other collection point is extracted for storage or filtering. It is also separate from the data retention of metadata that has become a legal requirement in some jurisdictions. Because of the invasive nature of this kind of surveillance, stricter rules are imposed in authorizing it as compared to other surveillance methods.
While wiretapping is one of the most effective surveillance techniques, it also comes with a price. In 2018, the average cost of an intercept in 2018 was $66,807, down 11 percent from the average cost in 2017 with the most expensive state wiretap was in New York (the Supreme Court Appellate Division Second Department), “where costs for a 365-day wiretap conducted to investigate an offense in the “other” category, which resulted in 17 arrests and no convictions, totaled $3,331,169.”
There are three categories of surveillance used by law enforcement for wiretapping: wire, oral, and electronic communications.
Court’s report reveals that he most common method reported was wire surveillance that used a telephone (land line, cellular, cordless, or mobile) which accounted for 64 percent (1,077 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2018, the majority of them involving cellular telephones.
With all the wiretap orders authorized by US courts, law enforcement agencies were able to arrest more than 7,498 persons, which are unfortunately 22% lower than the arrest rate in 2017. Furthermore, 1,122 persons had been convicted through wiretap evidence, which is a massive drop of 42% in the conviction rate from the year before.