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2023 Wiretap Report: Intercepts Fall, Arrests Rise

Federal and state courts reported a combined 13 percent decrease in authorized wiretaps in 2023, compared with 2022, according to the Judiciary’s 2023 Wiretap Report. Arrests in cases involving electronic surveillance increased, while convictions decreased.

The report covers wire, oral, and electronic intercepts that were concluded between Jan. 1, 2023, and Dec. 31, 2023, exclusive of interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The report is submitted annually to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO).

A total of 2,101 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2023, compared with 2,406 the previous year. Of those, 1,129 were authorized by federal judges, an 11 percent decrease from 2022. State judges authorized 972 wiretaps, a 14 percent decrease from the previous year.

Portable devices, which includes cell phones, accounted for 95 percent of applications for intercepts.

There was an increase in the number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered, with 238 such reports in 2023, compared with 192 in 2022. In 218 of the encrypted state wiretaps reported in 2023, officials were unable to decrypt the plain text of messages. A total of 234 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2023, of which 207 couldn’t be decrypted.

Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of crime investigated using intercepts. Fifty percent of all wiretap applications in 2023 cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation. Conspiracy was the second-most frequently cited crime (11 percent of total applications), and homicide and assault, the third largest category, was cited in about 5 percent of applications.

A total of 5,530 people were arrested as a result of wiretap investigations in 2023, up 5 percent from 2022, and 456 people were convicted in cases involving wiretaps, down 17 percent from the year before.

The District of Utah authorized the most federal wiretaps, accounting for about 6 percent of the applications approved by federal judges. Applications in six states accounted for 85 percent of all wiretaps approved by state judges. Those states were California, New York, North Carolina, Nevada, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

Federal and state laws limit the period of surveillance under an original order to 30 days. However, the period can be extended if a judge determines that additional time is justified. A total of 1,388 extensions were authorized in 2023, an increase of 2 percent from the year prior.

The Western District of Pennsylvania conducted the longest federal intercept that was terminated in 2023. An order was extended nine times to complete a 280-day wiretap in a narcotics investigation. The longest state-authorized wiretap occurred in Monroe, New York, where an original order was extended 26 times to complete a 733-day wiretap used in a narcotics investigation.

The average cost of a wiretap in 2023 was approximately $1.7 million, up significantly from the prior year. The increase was due to a state wiretap, conducted in Suffolk, New York, as part of a sweeping investigation into illegal drugs, which resulted in 29 arrests. The average cost of federal wiretaps in 2023 was $105,754, a 9 percent increase from 2022. The numbers include the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications.

The AO 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 AO 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