Privacy SOS

2012 wiretap stats show drug war continues to serve as primary fuel for surveillance state

A telephone tower disguised as a giant tree.

The US Courts federal wiretap statistics for 2012 are out, and they reflect a criminal justice and surveillance architecture firmly entrenched in the decades long, pointless, costly and inhumane war on drugs. (Keep in mind while you are reading these statistics that they are entirely separate from the FISA court-ordered surveillance operations undertaken by the National Security Agency (NSA).) Drug investigations accounted for a whopping 87% of all authorized wiretaps in 2012.

Here are the most important facts:

The number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2012 increased 24 percent from 2011. A total of 3,395 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2012–1,354 authorized by federal judges and 2,041 by state judges. Compared to the applications approved during 2011, the number approved by federal judges increased 71 percent in 2012, and the number approved by state judges rose 5 percent. Two state wiretap applications were denied in 2012.

During 2012, the average length of an original authorization was 30 days, one day longer than the average length in 2011….The longest state wiretap, used in a narcotics investigation conducted by Queens County, New York, was employed for a total of 580 days. The second-longest state wiretap, also in Queens County, was used in a usury investigation for a total of 564 days.

The most frequently noted category of location in wiretap applications was "portable device," a category that includes cellular telephones and digital pagers. In recent years, the number of wiretaps involving fixed locations has declined as the use of mobile communications, including text messaging from cellular telephones, has become increasingly widespread. In 2012, 97 percent (3,292 wiretaps) of all authorized wiretaps were designated as portable devices.

Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of criminal offenses investigated using wiretaps. Table 3 indicates that 87 percent of all applications for intercepts (2,967 wiretaps) in 2012 cited illegal drugs as the most serious offense under investigation. Homicide, the second-most frequently cited crime, was specified as the most serious offense in more than 3 percent of applications. Racketeering, the third-most frequently cited crime, was specified in less than 3 percent of applications.

The report also notes that for the first time, encryption prevented investigators from reading the content of communications they had received wiretap orders to monitor.

Encryption was reported for 15 wiretaps in 2012 and for 7 wiretaps conducted during previous years. In four of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. This is the first time that jurisdictions have reported that encryption prevented officials from obtaining the plain text of the communications since the AO began collecting encryption data in 2001.

Here in Massachusetts, where the Attorney General and state prosecutors are trying to push through a broad expansion of the wiretap statute, wiretaps were used in 12 investigations last year. Eleven of those investigations were related to narcotics; one is listed as ‘other’. Four of those wiretaps included the installation of physical intercepts, at a cost the state estimated reached an average of $48,966 per order. 

Live in Massachsuetts? Tell your state legislators that you don’t want them to expand the wiretap statute. It’s time to end the war on drugs, not to beef up the surveillance state in its service.

© 2020 ACLU of Massachusetts.