Wiretaps are increasing

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Last week the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts released its annual report on wiretap use by federal and state law enforcement agencies, and—to the surprise of no one who follows such Fourth Amendment-related subjects—wiretaps are increasing. In 2010, state and federal investigators received 3,194 wiretap orders—34 percent more than in 2009.

The wiretaps aren't being used for terrorism-monitoring purposes, but mostly for what Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute calls "ordinary law enforcement purposes"—investigations into crimes involving drugs, racketeering, and the like. In fact, 84 percent of wiretap orders were given for drug investigations. In Cook and DuPage Counties, all authorized wiretaps were for narcotics investigations; same goes for the U.S. Northern District of Illinois, minus two racketeering investigations.Given that wiretaps cost an estimated average of $52,000 a pop, that's one expensive drug war. (Other reports price wiretaps between $1,000 to $500,000.)

Keep in mind that the cases figuring into the report's tallies are only the reported ones. As a recent report by Indiana University-Bloomington researcher Chris Soghoian points out, many surveillance techniques aren't covered by mandatory reporting guidelines: "most modern surveillance now takes place entirely off the books and the true scale of such activities, which vastly outnumber traditional wiretaps and pen registers, remains unknown." Email-snooping also isn't factored into the report stats.

Last year's increase could be attributable to better reporting, but could also be due to lax regulations: Only one wiretap application was denied in 2010. "[Y]ou can choose to take [that] as evidence that law enforcement is extremely scrupulous in seeking applications, or that judges tend to rubber stamp them, according to your preferred level of paranoia," Sanchez writes. Then again, considering that zero applications were rejected between 2006 to 2010, maybe the courts are becoming more discriminating!

Wiretaps don't affect just suspected parties, but also their friends, families, and associates—most of whom are likely to be innocent of any crimes. "[T]the nature of wiretaps, as opposed to conventional physical searches, is that they always involve invading the privacy of somebody other than the target named in the warrant—indeed, as the numbers show, very many people," notes Sanchez. "You have to wonder what we’d think if traditional physical search warrants permitted police to rifle through the belongings of dozens of innocent people for each genuine criminal."

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