Federal/state wiretap use grows, encryption makes impact

Authorized communications intercept applications have increased 100% from 1,789 in 2003 to 3,576 in 2013.

With all the attention given law enforcement's use of surveillance technology it probably comes as no surprise that the use of authorized wiretaps is growing, what may be a shocker is that it only grew 5 percent in 2013 over 2012.

According to the 2013 Wiretap Report, released today by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts a total of 3,576 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2013, with 1,476 authorized by federal judges and 2,100 authorized by state judges. Compared to the applications approved during 2012, the number approved by federal judges increased 9 percent in 2013, and the number approved by state judges rose 3 percent.

According to the report California, New York, Nevada, New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida accounted for 80% of all applications approved by state judges. The Southern District of California authorized the most federal wiretaps, approximately 8 percent of the applications approved by federal judges.

Some other interesting facts from the report:

  • The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered increased from 15 in 2012 to 41 in 2013. In nine of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. Encryption was also reported for 52 state wiretaps that were conducted during previous years, but reported to the AO for the first time in 2013. Officials were able to decipher the plain text of the communications in all 52 intercepts.

  • The most common method reported was wire surveillance that used a telephone (land line, cellular, cordless, or mobile). Telephone wiretaps accounted for 93% (2,158 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2013, the majority of them involving cellular telephones.

  • The average cost of intercept devices in 2013 was $41,119, down 18% from the average cost in 2012. For federal wiretaps for which expenses were reported in 2013, the average cost was $43,361, a 25 percent decrease from 2012.

  • As of December 31, 2013, a total of 3,744 persons had been arrested (one more than in 2012), and 709 persons had been convicted (up 56% from 2012). Federal wiretaps were responsible for 17% of the arrests and 8% of the convictions arising from wiretaps for this period. The District of Maryland reported the largest number of arrests (56) for a federal jurisdiction, and the Middle District of Florida reported the most convictions (16). The Western District of Oklahoma reported the most arrests for an individual federal wiretap in 2013. A wiretap used in a narcotics investigation in that district resulted in the arrest of 44 individuals. At the state level, Riverside County, California, reported the largest number of arrests (250), followed by the State Attorney General's Office in Arizona (201). Clark County, Nevada, had the highest number of convictions (78) for any state jurisdiction in 2013. A state wiretap in the 17th Judicial District of Colorado led to the arrest of 88 individuals on narcotics charges.
  • Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of criminal offense investigated using wiretaps: 87 percent of all applications for intercepts (3,115 wiretaps) in 2013 cited illegal drugs as the most serious offense under investigation. "Other major offenses," a category that includes smuggling and money laundering, was the second-largest category and was specified as the most serious offense in approximately 4 percent of applications. Homicide, the third-most frequently cited crime, was specified in less than four percent of applications.
  • Authorized intercept applications reported by year increased 100% from 1,789 in 2003 to 3,576 in 2013. The majority of wiretaps have consistently been used for narcotics investigations, which accounted for 77% of intercepts in 2003 (1,104 applications) and 87 percent in 2013 (3,115 applications).

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