California Is One of the Places to Be if You Want to Be Wiretapped

Friday, July 18, 2014

They love their legal wiretaps in Nevada, but Californians are not far behind.

The annual Wiretap Report from the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts listed California third, based on the number of wiretaps judges approved per 500,000 residents, clocking in at 11.7. Nevada (mostly Las Vegas) dominated at 38.2, followed by the District of Columbia (17), Colorado (12.4), California and New York (10.7).

Only one request was not authorized.

The numbers do not account for snooping done under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which includes the massive operations conducted by agencies like the CIA and the NSA.

State authorities were responsible for 58.7% of the eavesdropping requests but they were approved with the same unanimity as federal applications. Of the 3,576 approved, 2,331 were installed. The state was much more likely to follow through than the feds. Eighty-five percent of the installations were theirs.

California, by virtue of its size, had the most wiretaps total. In fact, 26% of the nation’s wiretaps were in the Golden State, twice as many as New York, the next in line. Five states—Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Montana—had zero wiretaps.

State and federal judges approved 3,576 wiretaps last year, a record and 5% more than the year before. There were half as many a decade ago. Ninety percent of the taps (3,115) were aimed at suspected narcotics deals, followed by homicide and assault (132), racketeering (83), conspiracy (51), and larceny, theft and robbery (31). Only 1 was for kidnapping.

The wiretaps resulted in 3,744 arrests and 709 convictions.

Around 97% of the calls monitored were on portable devices, rather than landlines. The average period of authorization lasted 30 days and 59.5% received another 30-day extension.

Each wiretap intercepted conversations from a number of people. Among those wiretaps where numbers could be gathered, the average surveillance intercepted 4,558 communications involving 97 people and yielded 811 incriminating conversations.  

A lot of information was not gathered. Federal and state judges authorized 1,198 wiretaps for which prosecutors provided no information to the U.S. courts administrative office.

Although health care providers and other possessors of sensitive information have been slow to adopt encryption of their communications as a security measure, it has become more prevalent among those being wiretapped. Only 15 instances of encryption were reported in 2012, compared to 41 last year. Authorities were unable to break the encryption and decipher the messages in nine of those cases.

–Ken Broder    


To Learn More:

Here Are the States Where You Are Most Likely to Be Wiretapped (by Sarah Gray, Salon)

Almost 90 Percent of All US Wiretaps Listen for Suspected Drug Deals (by Brian Anderson, Motherboard)

Where the U.S. Wiretap Hotspots Are (by Martin Shelton, Pew Research Center)

Wiretap Report 2013 (United States Courts)

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