US Courts wiretap report: Smartphones impact, encryption confounds

Wiretaps have increased nearly 17% in 2015 over 2014, US Courts report finds

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

After dropping slightly in the previous year, the number of federal and state wiretaps increased nearly 17% in 2105 over 2014, according to an annual report submitted to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

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A total of 4,148 wiretaps were reported in 2015 versus 3,554 the previous year. Of those, 1,403 were authorized by federal judges, 10% more than in 2014, and 2,745 were authorized by state judges, an increase of 21%.   The report said 4,448 persons had been arrested in wiretap investigations, a 26% increase from 2014. The number of convictions rose 7%, to 590. Federal wiretaps were responsible for 29 %of the arrests, and 19 % of the convictions, according to the report.

Some other interesting facts from the US Courts report:

Those smartphones: Portable devices, which include cell phone communications, text messages, and apps, were targeted in 3,969 wiretaps—96% of all wiretaps concluded in 2015.

Encryption confounds: The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered decreased from 22 in 2014 to 7 in 2015. In all of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. Six federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2015, of which four could not be decrypted. Encryption was also reported for one federal wiretap that was conducted during a previous year, but reported to the AO for the first time in 2015. Officials were not able to decipher the plain text of the communications in that intercept.

Don’t go west: California alone accounted for 41% of all wiretap applications approved by state judges. Other applications concentrated in New York, Nevada, New Jersey, Colorado, and Florida.

That’s common: The most common method reported was wire surveillance that used a telephone (land line, cellular, cordless, or mobile). Telephone wiretaps accounted for 94% (2,578 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2015, the majority of them involving cellular telephones.  

Cause and impact: Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of criminal offense investigated using wiretaps. Some 79% of all applications for intercepts (3,292 wiretaps) in 2015 cited illegal drugs as the most serious offense under investigation, compared to 89% in 2014. Homicide, the second-most frequently cited crime, was specified in 5% of applications. Conspiracy was the third-largest category and was specified as the most serious offense in approximately 5% of applications.

Expenses: The average cost of a wiretap in 2015 was $42,216, up 7% from 2014.

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