In 2019, every interception order issued on a state and federal level was authorized. And over the past 10 years, only a handful of interception orders haven’t been authorized.
48 jurisdictions (44 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the federal government) have laws that give courts the power to issue orders permitting electronic, oral, or wire surveillance. Law enforcement officers may apply for these orders in the investigation of specific crimes, including murder, human/sex trafficking, drugs, kidnapping, and gang-related crime. They must have “probable cause” that evidence will be obtained through the interception.
So, to what extent are states conducting wiretapping? What devices are being targeted? Where are people being targeted (i.e. on mobile devices or in their office)? How much are these orders costing governments? And how successful does wiretapping prove to be?
Our team of researchers explored the state and district wiretapping orders submitted to United States courts in 2019 to find out.
- 4,655 orders were issued on a state and district level
- 3,813 extensions were granted from these orders
- Of the total length granted, wiretapping took place across 70 percent of these days (authorized wiretaps were given for 247,929 days in total, these were in operation for 171,056 in total)
- 777,840 people were intercepted
- 27,431,687 separate interceptions took place
- 3,589,186 of these interceptions were deemed “incriminating” – 13.08 percent
- Interceptions cost state governments $181,814,061
- 17,101 arrests were made as a result of interceptions* – 2.2 percent of all people intercepted
- 5,304 convictions were made as a result of interceptions* – 0.7 percent of all people intercepted
- 99 percent of all interceptions occurred on portable devices
*As cases may carry over into the following year, these figures could be higher. Reports are produced which show the number of arrests and convictions from previous years. For example, in 2009, over 4,500 arrests and 670 convictions were made in the same year, but a further 3,415 arrests and 2,691 convictions were made in the years following. Based on these figures, we can suggest that approximately 57 percent of arrests and 20 percent of convictions are made in the year the wiretap orders are issued.
If we apply this to 2019’s figures, we can establish that around 30,000 people may be arrested as a result of the wiretapping orders issued and 26,520 convictions could be made. This would mean that 3.85 percent of people intercepted are arrested and 3.4 percent of people intercepted are convicted of a crime.
The top 5 states for interception orders
- New York – 910 orders, 104,827 people intercepted, and 8,662,616 interceptions carried out: Of the interceptions, 11.6 percent were “incriminating,” leading to 8,278 arrests (7.9 percent of people intercepted) and 4,424 convictions (4.2 percent of people intercepted). The total cost of these was $38,845,503.
- In one of the biggest cases involving narcotics, 7,276 people were intercepted and nearly 46,500 intercepts were carried out, with just 0.8 percent of the intercepted communications being “incriminating.” This led to 14 arrests and 12 convictions.
- California – 631 orders, 531,230 people intercepted, and 6,277,755 interceptions carried out: Despite having a lower number of orders than NY, California has a much higher number of people being intercepted. It has a similar rate of incriminating interceptions (13.3 percent) but, despite the higher number of people intercepted, has a much lower rate of arrests and convictions – 0.23 and 0.02 percent, respectively. The total cost of these was $25,363,634.
- In one of the biggest cases involving gang crime, over 200,000 people were intercepted in a 42-day operation involving 4,303 intercepts. 3 percent of these intercepts were incriminating and led to 5 arrests (0.002 percent of people intercepted) and zero convictions (however, as mentioned previously, this could be due to an ongoing case). In another case involving conspiracy, 2,397 people were intercepted with a total of 3,113,551 interceptions. The total cost of this amounted to $1,229,514 and led to 45 arrests and convictions.
- Texas – 335 orders, 18,218 people intercepted, and 1,153,794 interceptions carried out: Of the interceptions, 26 percent were “incriminating,” leading to 490 arrests (2.7 percent of people intercepted) and 33 convictions (0.2 percent of people intercepted). The total cost of these was $10,137,987.
- One of the biggest cases involved narcotics. 1,300 people were intercepted with a total of 218,180 interceptions. 19 percent of these interceptions were incriminating but led to no arrests or convictions (in 2019).
- Nevada – 234 orders, 8,614 people intercepted, and 497,473 interceptions carried out: Of the interceptions, 24 percent were “incriminating,” leading to 88 arrests (1 percent of people intercepted) and 34 convictions (0.3 percent of people intercepted). The total cost of these was $4,114,758.
- One of the largest cases went through Nevada District Court and involved 1,106 people and 6,011 interceptions. 30 percent of these were incriminating and resulted in 4 arrests and convictions (0.36 percent of those intercepted).
- Florida – 181 orders, 9,548 people intercepted, and 352,661 interceptions carried out: Of the interceptions, 12 percent were “incriminating,” leading to 917 arrests (9 percent of people intercepted) and 166 convictions (1.7 percent of people intercepted). The total cost of these was $7,615,987.
- One of the biggest cases involved narcotics with 32,210 interceptions being carried out on 1,269 people. 741 of these were found to be incriminating (2.3 percent) and led to 6 arrests and 4 convictions (0.4 and 0.3 percent of people intercepted respectively).
Interception orders by state
|State||# of Orders||# of Extensions||Total Length of Wiretaps||# of Days in Operation||# of Persons Intercepted||# of Interceptions||# of Incriminating Interceptions||Interception Cost (total - $)||# Arrests||# Convictions|
Interceptions by type of crime
Over 55 percent of all of the persons intercepted through these court orders were wiretapped for gang-related crime. But only 1.3 percent of the interceptions carried out were related to this type of crime. Narcotics was the other top reason for people being intercepted, accounting for 27 percent. It was also the crime cited for the largest number of interceptions — 14,702,533 interceptions in total (54 percent of all interceptions).
Conspiracy and illegal drugs (included as a separate category to narcotics) were the other top categories for the largest number of interceptions, accounting for 14.8 and 11.9 percent respectively.
Interceptions by device
Text messages and cellular or mobile telephone conversations were the most intercepted. Almost 1.27 million texts were intercepted from over 8,500 people and more than 9.1 million mobile calls from nearly 130,000 people were intercepted. A further 625,789 people had a combination of over 12 million text messages or cellular calls intercepted. This means 98 percent of people intercepted had their texts or calls from mobile devices intercepted. And 82 percent of all interceptions occurred on mobile devices only.
More mobile devices may have been intercepted along with other methods of communication. For example, 2,804 people were cited as having their apps, computers or emails, texts, or mobile calls intercepted with over 3.1 million interceptions across this combined category in total.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the most cited location for interceptions is “portable device.” Nearly 771,000 people were intercepted on portable devices only, which is 99 percent of the total. And more than 27 million of all interceptions were carried out on these devices – also 99 percent of the total.
Other notable cases
- One of the biggest cases occurred in Pennsylvania where 2,066,505 mobile calls were intercepted through one order. This involved 179 people and resulted in 21,358 incriminating calls, 31 arrests, and no convictions (at the time the report was submitted).
- The longest wiretap, lasting 787 days in total, occurred in New York for a corruption case. 5,189 people were intercepted across 57,538 interceptions. 6 arrests and convictions were made.
- The most expensive wiretapping case occurred in Maryland and involved illegal drugs. It cost a whopping $2,511,137 and involved 13,305 interceptions of text messages and mobile calls. It resulted in 5 arrests but there had been no convictions at the time the report was submitted.
- The second-most expensive wiretapping case was in Georgia – again, for illegal drugs. It cost $1,920,777 and involved 64,239 interceptions. 17 arrests were made but only one person had been convicted.
Can states justify the high costs involved in interception orders?
As we can see, many states are conducting wiretapping on huge scales. This not only has a large cost when it comes to state funds but it also has an immense cost on people’s privacy.
If we look at the total number of people intercepted in 2019’s figures (1,556,940) and the number of people arrested (34,202) and the number of convictions (10,608), we can see a huge disparity between the number of people who are having their communications wiretapped and the number of people who are being found guilty of committing a crime. This is even if we allow for the fact that more convictions may arise from the interception orders reported by each state.
Plus, with 99 percent of interception orders being granted by courts, there seems to be little consideration for the innocent parties that may have their privacy invaded through such orders.
Nevertheless, the latest report does suggest that an increasing number of encrypted messages are being encountered through these interception orders (a year-on-year increase of 135 percent from 146 to 343). 97.4 percent of these were undecipherable.
Perhaps encryption holds the answer, then?
For now – maybe. With the government’s ongoing attempts to access encrypted messages and calls for law enforcement purposes, one has to wonder what, if any, safeguards will be put in place should encrypted messages become accessible under these interception orders, too.
Using the US Courts’ wiretap reports for district and state courts in 2019, we collated the data to create state totals across all of the categories included within the reports.
No information was included for Alaska, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, or Wyoming. This is due to no reports having been submitted to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts or late submission (in which case, they will be included in 2020’s figures).
In some cases, the number of people intercepted is “0.” This may be due to figures being carried over from previous years or incomplete reports.
You can view the full dataset here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/12lGkSz5HSK9SoJ6_68J6ueN00WZzGIeETrTaf3PmWyI/edit?usp=sharing