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Wiretap Report 2017

This report covers intercepts (also known as wiretaps) concluded between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2017, 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 30 jurisdictions reported using at least one of these types of surveillance as an investigative tool during 2017.

Summary and Analysis of Reports by Judges

The number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2017 increased 20 percent from 2016. A total of 3,813 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2017, with 2,013 authorized by federal judges and 1,800 authorized by state judges. Compared to the applications approved during 2016, the number approved by federal judges increased 30 percent in 2017, and the number approved by state judges increased 11 percent. No wiretap applications were reported as denied in 2017.

In 29 states, a total of 142 separate local jurisdictions (including counties, cities, and judicial districts) reported wiretap applications for 2017. Applications concentrated in six states (California, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Florida) accounted for 81 percent of all state wiretap applications. Applications in California alone constituted 34 percent of all applications approved by state judges.

Wiretap pie chart, state wiretap authorizations in 2017

Eighty-four federal jurisdictions submitted reports of wiretap applications for 2017. The Southern District of Texas authorized the most federal wiretaps, approximately 6 percent of the applications approved by federal judges.

Federal judges and state judges reported the authorization of 1,223 wiretaps and 130 wiretaps, respectively, for which the AO received no corresponding data from prosecuting officials. Wiretap Tables A-1 and B-1 contain information from judge and prosecutor reports submitted for 2017. 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 2017, the average reported length of an original authorization was 30 days, the same as in 2016. The average reported length of an extension was also 30 days.  In total, 2,369 extensions were reported as requested and authorized in 2017, an increase of 13 percent from the prior year. The District of Arizona and the Southern District of Texas conducted the longest federal intercepts that were terminated in 2017. An original order in the District of Arizona was extended 16 times to complete a 510-day wiretap used in a narcotics investigation. In the Southern District of Texas, an order was extended eight times to complete a 270-day wiretap in an extortion investigation. For state intercepts terminated in 2017, the longest intercepts occurred in Dekalb County, Georgia, where the original order was extended 21 times to complete a 598-day wiretap used in a racketeering 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 2017, a total of 94 percent of all authorized wiretaps (3,584 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 2017, a total of 73 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 53 percent of all applications for intercepts (2,027 wiretap applications) in 2017 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 77 percent of all reported wiretap applications in 2017, compared to 82 percent in 2016. Conspiracy, the second-most frequently cited crime, was specified in 12 percent of applications. Homicide and assault, 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 2017, for reported intercepts, installed wiretaps were in operation for an average of 43 days, one day shorter than the average in 2016. The federal wiretap with the most intercepts occurred during a narcotics investigation in the Central District of California and resulted in the interception of 227,860 messages in 60 days, including 63,495 incriminating interceptions. The state wiretap with the most intercepts was a 49-day wiretap for a murder investigation in Fresno County, California, which resulted in the interception of 603,382 cell phone conversations and messages.

Encryption

The number of state wiretaps reported in which encryption was encountered increased from 57 in 2016 to 102 in 2017.  In 97 of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. A total of 57 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2017, of which 37 could not be decrypted. Encryption was also reported for 32 federal and 9 state wiretaps that were conducted during a previous year, but reported to the AO for the first time in 2017. Officials were not able to decipher the plain text of the communications in 8 of the state intercepts or 29 of the federal of intercepts.

Cost of Intercepts

Table 5 provides a summary of expenses related to wiretaps in 2017. The expenditures noted reflect the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications for the 2,421 authorizations for which reports included cost data. The average cost of an intercept in 2017 was $74,718, down less than one percent from the average cost in 2016. The most expensive state wiretap was in Kern County, California, where costs for a 30-day wiretap addressing a gang-related murder totaled $5,027,837. For federal wiretaps for which expenses were reported in 2017, the average cost was $61,234, a 27 percent decrease from 2016. The most expensive federal wiretap completed during 2017 occurred in the Northern District of California, where costs for a narcotics investigation that resulted in 7 arrests and no convictions totaled $2,214,154.

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 92 percent (2,218 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2017, 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, 2017, a total of 9,565 persons had been arrested (down 23 percent from 2016), and 1,936 persons had been convicted (up 55 percent from 2016). Federal wiretaps were responsible for 18 percent of the arrests and 5 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 2017, with wiretaps there resulting in the arrest of 114 individuals. At the state level, Queens County, New York, reported the largest number of total arrests (1,247) and the highest number of total convictions (450) in 2017.

Summary of Reports for Years Ending December 31, 2007, through December 31, 2017

Table 7 presents data on intercepts reported each year from 2007 to 2017. Authorized intercept applications reported by year increased 73 percent from 2,208 in 2007 to 3,813 in 2017 (the total for 2007 was revised after initial publication). Most wiretaps have consistently been used for narcotics investigations, which accounted for 81 percent of intercepts initially reported in 2007 (1,792 applications) and 53 percent in 2017 (2,027 applications). Table 9 presents the total number of arrests and convictions resulting from intercepts terminated in calendar years 2007 through 2017.

Wiretap bar graph, wiretaps reported 2007-2017

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 4,824 arrests, 1,752 convictions, and additional costs of $120,930,621 arose from and were reported for wiretaps completed in previous years. Sixty-eight percent of the supplemental reports of additional activity in 2017 involved wiretaps terminated in 2016. Interceptions concluded in 2016 led to 65 percent of arrests, 60 percent of convictions, and 60 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, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire A1—Appendix Tables Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 373.13 KB)
Intercepts of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Authorized by State Courts and Terminated Wire B1 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire B1—Appendix Tables Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 268.83 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, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 1—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 12.31 KB)
Intercept Orders Issued by Judges Wire 2 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 2—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 29.97 KB)
Major Offenses for Which Court-Authorized Intercepts Were Granted Wire 3 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 3—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 22.7 KB)
Interceptions of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Wire 4 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 4—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 21.54 KB)
Average Cost per Order Wire 5 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 5—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 18.07 KB)
Types of Surveillance Used, Arrests, and Convictions for Intercepts Installed Wire 6 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 6—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 21.3 KB)
Authorized Intercepts Granted Wire 7 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 7—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 16.28 KB)
Supplementary Data for Intercepts Terminated in Prior Years as Reported Wire 8 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 8—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 15.92 KB)
Arrests and Convictions Resulting from Intercepts Installed Wire 9 December 31, 2017 Wiretap Download Table Wire 9—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2017) (xlsx, 16.04 KB)