Main content

2016 Wiretap Report: Federal Orders Rise, State Totals Fall

An annual Judiciary report on wiretaps showed a sharp divergence between federal and state courts, with federal courts reporting a 11 percent increase in authorized wiretaps in 2016, compared to 2015, and state courts reporting a 41 percent decline. Despite the decrease in wiretaps, arrests and convictions involving electronic surveillance rose sharply.

The 2016 Wiretap Report covers intercepts — of wire, oral or electronic communications — that were concluded between January 1, 2016, and December 31, 2016. The report, submitted to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, does not include data on interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. 

A total of 3,168 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2016, compared with 4,148 the previous year. Of those, 1,551 were authorized by federal judges, compared with 1,403 in 2015. A total of 1,617 wiretaps were authorized by state judges, compared with 2,745 in 2015. Two wiretap applications were reported as denied in 2016.

The largest single decline in reported state wiretaps occurred in California, where applications fell 50 percent, compared with 2015.

As in previous years, telephone wiretaps accounted for the large majority of cases, involving 84 percent of applications for intercepts. Drug investigations also remained the most common type of crime.

The report said 12,412 persons were arrested in wiretap investigations, a 179 percent increase over the 4,448 wiretap-related arrests reported in 2015. The number of convictions more than doubled, from 590 in 2015 to 1,248 in 2016.  

A total of 2,096 extensions were reported as requested and authorized, permitting wiretaps to continue after their initial 30-day authorization had expired. That represents a 36 percent decrease in extensions, compared with the previous year.

The District of Arizona and the Middle District of Florida conducted the longest federal intercepts that were terminated in 2016. One order in Arizona was extended 10 times to complete a 306-day wiretap. The longest state-authorized wiretaps occurred in Queens, New York, where two orders were each extended 30 times to complete 457-day wiretaps used in a narcotics investigation.

Other highlights from the 2016 Wiretap Report:

  • 61 percent of all wiretaps cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation, compared with 79 percent in 2015. Conspiracy investigations accounted for 8 percent, and homicide investigations accounted for 5 percent.
  • Portable devices, which include cell phone communications, text messages, and apps, were targeted in 2,947 wiretaps—93 percent of all wiretaps concluded in 2016.
  • The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered rose from seven in 2015, to 57 in 2016. In 48 of these wiretaps, investigators were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages.
  • Applications in six states (California, New York, Nevada, New Jersey, Colorado, and Florida) accounted for 82 percent of all state wiretap applications. California alone accounted for 35 percent of all applications approved by state judges.
  • The average cost of a wiretap in 2016 was $74,949, up 78 percent from the $42,216 per tap reported in 2015.

The Administrative Office is required by statute to report annually to Congress by June 30 on the number and nature of wiretaps concluded in the prior year.

No report to the Administrative Office is needed when an order is issued with the consent of one of the principal parties to the communication. No report is required for the use of a pen register unless the pen register is used in conjunction with any other wiretap devices whose use must be recorded. 

Related Topics: Statistics