Although the war on drugs is increasingly politically unpopular across the political spectrum, the US courts wiretap report for 2013 provides yet more evidence that both federal and state government are doubling down on the ruinous policy. The 2013 wiretap report—which does not include figures pertaining to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) wiretaps—shows that a whopping 87% of authorized intercepts, 93% of which were phone taps, were executed in drug cases. The figures show that courts granted 3,576 wiretap authorizations in 2013 in the 27 states that reported. Courts denied only one wiretap application in the United States in 2013.
Coming the same week as new hints about the FBI’s expansive tapping of NSA data troves—empirical figures for which the public remains ignorant to this day—the wiretap data show that the government’s appetite for spying on Americans has strengthened over the past decade. And instead of moving away from failed drug war enforcement, the government has focused with laser precision on tapping the phones of suspected dealers. If anyone is confused about the relationship between the drug war and the surveillance state, let the following put to rest their doubts:
87 percent of all applications for intercepts (3,115 wiretaps) in 2013 cited illegal drugs as the most serious offense under investigation…
Authorized intercept applications reported by year increased 100 percent from 1,789 in 2003 to 3,576 in 2013 (the total for 2003 was revised after initial publication). The majority of wiretaps have consistently been used for narcotics investigations, which accounted for 77 percent of intercepts in 2003 (1,104 applications) and 87 percent in 2013 (3,115 applications).
Other notable data from the report include:
- 97% of wiretaps were targeted at portable devices (presumably mostly cell phones);
- 100% of wiretaps in Massachusetts were for narcotics investigations (6 federal and 11 local, with 1 from Middlesex County and 10 from Berkshire County);
- In the Northern District of Illinois, investigators conducted the most expansive federal wiretap in 2013, intercepting “136,378 messages over 90 days, including 36,244 incriminating interceptions” in a narcotics case;
- The most expansive state wiretap occurred in Gwinnett County, Georgia, where police working a narcotics case intercepted 187,091 calls and messages over a 194-day wiretap—13 percent of which were incriminating;
- Edward Snowden’s revelations appear to have had a significant impact on state wiretap investigations: “The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered increased from 15 in 2012 to 41 in 2013.” In nine of those cases, the encryption worked, and officials were unable to decipher the targeted communications;
- Wiretaps cost taxpayers quite a chunk of change, but overall the price of surveillance is plummeting. “For federal wiretaps for which expenses were reported in 2013, the average cost was $43,361, a 25 percent decrease from 2012.”
Placing the wiretap report in context
The wiretap figures in this report might look small, even though they are increasing each year, and have exploded by 100 percent over the past examined ten years. But not all states reported to the US courts. And more importantly, wiretap authorizations enable government agents to intercept live communications—a tiny fraction of the actual government surveillance directed at individuals and communities. Far more common is law enforcement’s use of subpoenas, low-standard court orders, and even warrants to obtain stored or historical information from our cell phone and internet providers. Recent data on law enforcement requests to cell phone companies alone shows that the numbers seeking stored communications reach into the millions each year.
While the annual wiretap report is an important transparency mechanism that shines light on invasive government surveillance, in the year 2014 it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story about government monitoring in the digital age. In order to truly inform the public about the nature and extent of spying, the report needs to be expanded to reflect the most common ways the government invades our privacy today.
A more illustrative and therefore useful government transparency effort would include the number of subpoenas, court orders, and warrants issued in investigations across the nation each year, broken down by region and type of investigation. Listening to someone’s live conversations or reading their text messages as they’re sent is certainly invasive, but we have a lot of reason to be perhaps even more concerned about the millions of other times state, local, and federal law enforcement are prying into our private lives, often with much less than probable cause to show for their efforts.
Despite these shortcomings, the wiretap report is a good indicator of trends in criminal justice in the United States. Tragically, but unsurprisingly, the 2013 report adds more evidence to a growing body demonstrating conclusively that the drug war and surveillance state are peas in a pod, feeding off of one another and corroding what remains of our open society.
For more information about surveillance in your neck of the woods, check out how prosecutors and police used wiretaps in your state last year.