Federal wiretaps down slightly, encryption impact decreases

California and Arizona lead nation in authorized wiretaps

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Credit: Reuters

For the first time in a number of years the use of authorized federal wiretaps decreased 13% in 2014 over 2013.

According to the 2014 Wiretap Report, released today by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts a total of a total of 3,554 wiretaps were reported as authorized, with 1,279 authorized by federal judges and 2,275 authorized by state judges. Compared to the applications approved during 2013, the number approved by federal judges decreased 13% in 2014 and the number approved by state judges increased 8%. One state wiretap application was denied in 2014, the report stated.

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The court said applications in California accounted for 43% of all applications approved by state judges while the Arizona authorized the most federal wiretaps, approximately 7% of the applications approved by federal judges.

 Some interesting facts from the report:

  • The most frequently noted location in wiretap applications was “portable device.” In recent years, the use of mobile communications, including text messaging and application software from cellular telephones, have become increasingly widespread. In 2014, a total of 96% (3,409 wiretaps) of all authorized wiretaps were designated as portable devices.
  • Prosecutors, under certain conditions, including a showing of probable cause to believe that actions taken by a party being investigated could have the effect of thwarting interception from a specified facility, may use “roving” wiretaps to target specific persons by using electronic devices at multiple locations rather than at a specific telephone or location. In 2014, 4 federal wiretaps and 19 state wiretaps were designated as roving.
  • The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered decreased from 41 in 2013 to 22 in 2014. In two of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. Three federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2014, of which two could not be decrypted. Encryption was also reported for five federal wiretaps that were conducted during previous years, but reported to the court for the first time in 2014. Officials were able to decipher the plain text of the communications in four of the five intercepts.
  • Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of criminal offense investigated using wiretaps. Eighty-nine percent of all applications for intercepts (3,170 wiretaps) in 2014 cited illegal drugs as the most serious offense under investigation. Homicide, the second-most frequently cited crime, was specified in approximately 4% of applications. “Other major offenses,” a category that includes smuggling and money laundering, was the third-largest category and was specified as the most serious offense in less than 3% of applications.
  • In 2014, for reported intercepts, installed wiretaps were in operation for an average of 34 days, 6 days below the average in 2013. The federal wiretap with the most intercepts occurred in the District of Colorado and resulted in the interception of 55,073 messages over 90 days, including 5,821 incriminating interceptions. This was part of a broader conspiracy investigation that began in 2013 and involved seven related cell phone wiretaps. A total of 301,980 communications were intercepted during the investigation, of which 34,926 were incriminating. The state wiretap with the most intercepts was a 455-day wiretap for a larceny investigation in Queens County, New York, which resulted in the interception of 350,230 cell phone conversations, of which 19,888 were incriminating.
  • The expenditures noted reflect the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications for the 2,066 authorizations for which reports included cost data. The average cost of intercept devices in 2014 was $39,485, down 4% from the average cost in 2013. The most expensive state wiretap was in the 13th Judicial Circuit of Florida, where costs for a narcotics wiretap related to nine other wiretaps totaled $1,204,307. For federal wiretaps for which expenses were reported in 2014, the average cost was $44,823, a 3% increase from 2013. The most expensive federal wiretap occurred in the Northern District of New York and involved a 77-day narcotics investigation that totaled $752,442.

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