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Wiretap Report 2016

This report covers intercepts concluded between January 1, 2016, and December 31, 2016, as reported to the AO, and provides supplementary information reported to the AO on arrests and convictions resulting from intercepts concluded in prior years.

Forty-eight jurisdictions (the federal government, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and 44 states) currently have laws that authorize courts to issue orders permitting wire, oral, or electronic surveillance. Table 1 shows that a total of 27 jurisdictions reported using at least one of these types of surveillance as an investigative tool during 2016.

Summary and Analysis of Reports by Judges

The number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2016 decreased 24 percent from 2015. A total of 3,168 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2016, with 1,551 authorized by federal judges and 1,617 authorized by state judges. Compared to the applications approved during 2015, the number approved by federal judges increased 11 percent in 2016, and the number approved by state judges decreased 41 percent. The largest reduction in reported state wiretap applications occurred in California, where 50 percent fewer applications were reported. Two wiretap applications were reported as denied in 2016.

In 26 states, a total of 107 separate local jurisdictions (including counties, cities, and judicial districts) reported wiretap applications for 2016. Applications concentrated in six states (California, New York, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, and New Jersey) accounted for 82 percent of all state wiretap applications. Applications in California alone constituted 35 percent of all applications approved by state judges.

State Wiretap Authorizations in 2016

Seventy-seven federal jurisdictions submitted reports of wiretap applications for 2016. For the third year in a row, the District of Arizona authorized the most federal wiretaps, approximately 9 percent of the applications approved by federal judges.

Federal judges and state judges reported the authorization of 600 wiretaps and 177 wiretaps, respectively, for which the AO received no corresponding data from prosecuting officials. Wiretap Tables A-1 and B-1 (which will become available online after July 1, 2017, at http://www.uscourts.gov/statistics-reports/analysis-reports/wiretap-reports) contain information from judge and prosecutor reports submitted for 2016. The entry “NP” (no prosecutor’s report) appears in these tables whenever a prosecutor’s report was not submitted. Some prosecutors may have delayed filing reports to avoid jeopardizing ongoing investigations. Some of the prosecutors’ reports require additional information to comply with reporting requirements or were received too late to include in this document. Information about these wiretaps should appear in future reports.

Intercept Orders, Extensions, and Locations

Table 2 presents the number of intercept orders issued in each jurisdiction that provided reports, the number of extensions granted, the average lengths of the original periods authorized and any extensions, the total number of days in operation, and the locations of the communications intercepted. Federal and state laws limit the period of surveillance under an original order to 30 days. This period, however, can be lengthened by one or more extensions if the authorizing judge determines that additional time is justified.

During 2016, the average reported length of an original authorization was 30 days, the same as in 2015. The average reported length of an extension was also 30 days. In total, 2,096 extensions were reported as requested and authorized in 2016, a decrease of 36 percent from the prior year. The District of Arizona and the Middle District of Florida conducted the longest federal intercepts that were terminated in 2016. An original order in the District of Arizona was extended 10 times to complete a 306-day wiretap used in a narcotics investigation. In the Middle District of Florida, an order was extended nine times to complete a 290-day wiretap in a narcotics investigation. For state intercepts terminated in 2016, the longest intercepts occurred in Queens County, New York, where 2 original orders each were extended 30 times to complete both 457-day wiretaps used in a narcotics investigation.

The most frequently noted location in reported wiretap applications was “portable device.” This category includes cell phone communications, text messages, and application software (apps). In 2016, a total of 93 percent of all authorized wiretaps (2,947 wiretaps) were reported to have used portable devices.

Prosecutors, under certain conditions, including a showing of probable cause to believe that actions taken by a party being investigated could have the effect of thwarting interception from a specified facility, may use “roving” wiretaps to target specific persons by using electronic devices at multiple locations rather than at a specific telephone or location (see 18 U.S.C § 2518(11)). In 2016, a total of 64 reported federal and state wiretaps were designated as roving.

Criminal Offenses

Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of criminal offenses investigated using reported wiretaps. Table 3 indicates that 61 percent of all applications for intercepts (1,949 wiretap applications) in 2016 cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation. Applications citing narcotics plus those citing other offenses, which include other offenses related to drugs, accounted for 82 percent of all reported wiretap applications in 2016, compared to 84 percent in 2015. Conspiracy, the second-most frequently cited crime, was specified in 8 percent of applications. Homicide, the third-largest category, was specified as the most serious offense in approximately 5 percent of applications. Many applications for court orders revealed that multiple criminal offenses were under investigation, but Table 3 includes only the most serious criminal offense listed on an application.

Lengths and Numbers of Intercepts

In 2016, for reported intercepts, installed wiretaps were in operation for an average of 44 days, 1 day longer than the average in 2015. The federal wiretap with the most intercepts occurred during a narcotics investigation in the Middle District of Pennsylvania and resulted in the interception of 3,292,385 cell phone conversations or messages over 60 days. The state wiretap with the most intercepts was a 118-day wiretap for a narcotics investigation in Los Angeles County, California, which resulted in the interception of 559,003 cell phone conversations, of which 113,528 were incriminating.

Encryption

The number of state wiretaps reported in which encryption was encountered increased from 7 in 2015 to 57 in 2016. In 48 of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. A total of 68 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2016, of which 53 could not be decrypted. Encryption was also reported for 20 federal and 19 state wiretaps that were conducted during a previous year, but reported to the AO for the first time in 2016. Officials were not able to decipher the plain text of the communications in any of the state intercepts or in 13 of the federal of intercepts.

Cost of Intercepts

Table 5 provides a summary of expenses related to wiretaps in 2016. The expenditures noted reflect the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications for the 2,332 authorizations for which reports included cost data. The average cost of an intercept in 2016 was $74,949, up 78 percent from the average cost in 2015. The most expensive state wiretap was in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, New York, where costs for a 434-day narcotics wiretap that resulted in 15 arrests and no convictions totaled $2,989,930. For federal wiretaps for which expenses were reported in 2016, the average cost was $83,356, a 70 percent increase from 2015. The most expensive federal wiretap completed during 2016 occurred in the Southern District of California, where costs for a narcotics investigation totaled $5,266,558.

Methods of Surveillance

The three major categories of surveillance are wire, oral, and electronic communications. Table 6 presents the type of surveillance method used for each intercept installed. The most common method reported was wire surveillance that used a telephone (land line, cellular, cordless, or mobile). Telephone wiretaps accounted for 84 percent (1,955 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2016, the majority of them involving cellular telephones. 

Arrests and Convictions

Data on individuals arrested and convicted as a result of interceptions reported as terminated are presented in Table 6. As of December 31, 2016, a total of 12,412 persons had been arrested (up 179 percent from 2015), and 1,248 persons had been convicted (up 112 percent from 2015). Federal wiretaps were responsible for 15 percent of the arrests and 7 percent of the convictions arising from wiretaps for this period. The Southern District of New York reported the most arrests for a federal district in 2016, with wiretaps there resulting in the arrest of 488 individuals. At the state level, Oklahoma Criminal Appeals reported the largest number of total arrests (5,057), followed by Queens County, New York (736). Queens County, New York, also had the highest number of total convictions (380) for any state jurisdiction in 2016.

Summary of Reports for Years Ending December 31, 2006, through December 31, 2016

Table 7 presents data on intercepts reported each year from 2006 to 2016. Authorized intercept applications reported by year increased 72 percent from 1,839 in 2006 to 3,168 in 2016 (the total for 2006 was revised after initial publication). The majority of wiretaps have consistently been used for narcotics investigations, which accounted for 80 percent of intercepts initially reported in 2006 (1,473 applications) and 76 percent in 2016 (1,949 applications). Table 9 presents the total number of arrests and convictions resulting from intercepts terminated in calendar years 2006 through 2016.

Wiretaps Reported from 2006 to 2016

Supplementary Reports                  

Under 18 U.S.C. § 2519(2), prosecuting officials must file supplementary reports on additional court or police activity occurring as a result of intercepts reported in prior years. Because many wiretap orders are related to large-scale criminal investigations that cross county and state boundaries, supplemental reports are necessary to fulfill reporting requirements. Arrests, trials, and convictions resulting from these interceptions often do not occur within the same year in which the intercepts were first reported. Table 8 shows that a total of 12,440 arrests, 6,694 convictions, and additional costs of $201,427,611 arose from and were reported for wiretaps completed in previous years. Sixty percent of the supplemental reports of additional activity in 2016 involved wiretaps terminated in 2015. Interceptions concluded in 2015 led to 53 percent of arrests, 30 percent of convictions, and 40 percent of expenditures noted in the supplementary reports.

Appendix Tables
Title Publication Table Number Reporting Period Report Name
Intercepts of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Authorized by U.S. District Courts and Terminated Wire A1 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire A1—Appendix Tables Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 496.07 KB)
Intercepts of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Authorized by State Courts and Terminated Wire B1 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire B1—Appendix Tables Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 321.12 KB)
Wiretap
Title Publication Table Number Reporting Period Report Name
Jurisdictions with Statutes Authorizing the Interception of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Effective Wire 1 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 1—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 12.19 KB)
Intercept Orders Issued by Judges Wire 2 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 2—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 37.24 KB)
Major Offenses for Which Court-Authorized Intercepts Were Granted Wire 3 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 3—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 24.85 KB)
Interceptions of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Wire 4 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 4—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 22.75 KB)
Average Cost per Order Wire 5 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 5—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 18.28 KB)
Types of Surveillance Used, Arrests, and Convictions for Intercepts Installed Wire 6 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 6—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 22.6 KB)
Authorized Intercepts Granted Wire 7 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 7—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 16.03 KB)
Supplementary Data for Intercepts Terminated in Prior Years as Reported Wire 8 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 8—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 16.97 KB)
Arrests and Convictions Resulting from Intercepts Installed Wire 9 December 31, 2016 Wiretap Download Table Wire 9—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2016) (xlsx, 27.37 KB)