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2017 Wiretap Report: Orders and Convictions Rise

Federal courts reported a 30 percent increase in authorized wiretaps in 2017, compared to 2016, and state courts reported an 11 percent rise, according to a newly released Judiciary report. Although arrests fell in cases involving electronic surveillance, convictions rose sharply.

The 2017 Wiretap Report covers intercepts — of wire, oral or electronic communications — that were concluded between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2017. The report, submitted annually 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 3,813 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2017, compared with 3,168 the previous year. Of those, 2,013 were authorized by federal judges, compared with 1,551 in 2016. A total of 1,800 wiretaps were authorized by state judges, compared with 1,617 in 2016. No wiretap applications were reported as denied in 2017.

The number of state wiretaps in which encryption occurred continued to rise sharply, with 102 such reports in 2017, compared with 57 in 2016 and just seven in 2015. In 97 of the wiretaps reported in 2017, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of messages. A total of 57 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2017, of which 37 could not be deciphered.

As in previous years, telephone wiretaps accounted for the large majority of cases, involving 92 percent of applications for intercepts. Drug investigations also remained the most common type of crime.

The report said 9,565 persons were arrested in wiretap investigations, down 23 percent from 2016. The number of convictions rose 55 percent from 2016.  

A total of 2,369 extensions were reported as requested and authorized in 2017, permitting wiretaps to continue after their initial 30-day authorization had expired. That represents a 13  percent increase in extensions, compared with the previous year.

The District of Arizona conducted the longest federal intercept that was terminated in 2017. The order was extended 16 times to complete a 510-day wiretap. The longest state-authorized wiretap occurred in DeKalb County, Georgia, where the original order was extended 21 times to complete a 598-day wiretap used in a racketeering investigation.

Other highlights from the 2017 Wiretap Report:

  • 53 percent of all wiretaps cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation, compared with 61 percent in 2016. Conspiracy investigations accounted for 12 percent, and homicide investigations accounted for 5 percent.
  • Portable devices, which include cell phone communications, text messages and apps, were targeted in 3,584 wiretaps—94 percent of all wiretaps concluded in 2017.
  • Applications in six states (California, New York, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Florida) accounted for 81 percent of all state wiretap applications. California alone accounted for 34 percent of all applications approved by state judges.
  • The average cost of a wiretap in 2017 was $74,718, down less than 1 percent from $74,949 in 2016.

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