Despite controversy, federal, state wiretaps on the rise

While their over-use is controversial federal and state requests for court permission to intercept or wiretap electronic communications increased 34% in 2010 over 2009 with California, New York, and New Jersey accounting for 68% of all wire taps approved by state judges.

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According to the 2010 Wiretap Report, released today by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC) the most frequently noted location in wiretap requests was "portable device," a category that includes cellular telephones and digital pagers. In 2010, a total of 96% of all authorized wiretaps were designated as portable devices. The most common surveillance method was wire surveillance that used a telephone - land line, cellular, cordless or mobile. Telephone wiretaps accounted for 97% (2,253 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2010, the majority of which were cell telephones.

According to the report, 84% of all applications for intercepts (2,675 wiretaps) in 2010 cited illegal drugs as the most serious offense under investigation. As of Dec. 31, 2010, a total of 4,711 people had been arrested and 800 had been convicted as a result of all interceptions reported as terminated.

In 2010, installed wiretaps were in operation for an average of 40 days, two days less than in 2009. The federal wiretap with the most intercepts occurred in the Southern District of California, where a narcotics investigation involving cellular telephones resulted in the interception of 74,715 messages over 210 days. The second-highest number of intercepts stemmed from a cellular telephone wiretap in the Western District of Missouri for a narcotics investigation; this wiretap was active for 118 days and resulted in a total of 74,144 interceptions, the AOUSC report noted.

The state wiretap with the most intercepts was conducted in Queens County, New York, where a 62-day wiretap in a corruption investigation involving cell phone interceptions resulted in the interception of 134,410 messages. A wiretap installed in Gwinnett County, Georgia, lasted 415 days and generated 88,518 cellular telephone and text message interceptions, the report stated.

The three major categories of surveillance are wire, oral and electronic communications. For many years, nearly all intercepts involved telephone surveillance, the remainder involved microphone (oral) surveillance. A third category was added for reporting electronic communications with the passage of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. These communications usually are made through digital-display paging devices, fax machines, text messaging and computer transmissions, the report noted.

The average cost per wiretap can vary widely across the country. The report notes for example that wiretap costs in New York state alone range from a little over $1,00 to close to $500,000.

Wiretapping activities are divisive. Earlier this year, the FBI said Web-based e-mail, social-networking and peer-to-peer services are frustrating law enforcement wiretapping efforts but did not offer concrete ideas on how to fix the problem.

Another report complained that law enforcement organizations were making tens of thousands of requests for private electronic information from companies such as Sprint, Facebook and AOL, but few detailed statistics are available.

Police and other agencies have "enthusiastically embraced" asking for e-mail, instant messages and mobile-phone location data, but there's no U.S. federal law that requires the reporting of requests for stored communications data, wrote Christopher Soghoian, a doctoral candidate at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, in a paper.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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