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Wiretap Report 2018

This report covers intercepts (also known as wiretaps) concluded between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2018, as reported to the AO, and provides supplementary information reported to the AO on arrests and convictions resulting from intercepts concluded in prior years.1

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 2018.

Summary and Analysis of Reports by Judges

The number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2018 decreased 23 percent from 2017. A total of 2,937 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2018, with 1,457 authorized by federal judges and 1,480 authorized by state judges. Compared to the applications approved during 2017, the number approved by federal judges decreased 28 percent in 2018, and the number approved by state judges decreased 18 percent. A total of two wiretaps were reported as denied in 2018.

In 26 states, a total of 111 separate local jurisdictions (including counties, cities, and judicial districts) reported wiretap applications for 2018. Applications concentrated in six states (California, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New Jersey) accounted for 82 percent of all state wiretap applications. Applications in California and New York alone constituted 46 percent of all applications approved by state judges.

2018 Wiretap Pie Chart

Eighty-one federal jurisdictions submitted reports of wiretap applications for 2018. The Central District of California authorized the most federal wiretaps, approximately 8 percent of the applications approved by federal judges. 

Federal judges and state judges reported the authorization of 991 wiretaps and 253 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 2018. 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 2018, the average reported length of an original authorization was 30 days, the same as in 2017. The average reported length of an extension was also 30 days.  In total, 1,355 extensions were reported as requested and authorized in 2018, a decrease of 43 percent from the prior year (this reduction stems in part from new technology that facilitates the matching of extensions arising from the same intercept order, thereby reducing instances in which forms reporting extensions are counted multiple times). The Northern District of Illinois (IL-N) conducted the longest federal intercepts that were terminated in 2018. One original order in IL-N was extended 8 times to complete a 270-day wiretap used in a bribery investigation. Another order in IL-N was extended 7 times to complete a 240-day wiretap in a corruption investigation. For state intercepts terminated in 2018, the longest intercept occurred in Bronx, New York, where an original order was extended 24 times to complete a 250-day wiretap used in a larceny 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 2018, a total of 96 percent of all authorized wiretaps (2,831 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 2018, a total of 17 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 46 percent of all applications for intercepts (1,354 wiretap applications) in 2018 cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation. Applications citing narcotics combined with applications citing other offenses, which include other offenses related to drugs, accounted for 77 percent of all reported wiretap applications in 2018, the same as in 2017. Conspiracy, the second-most frequently cited crime, was specified in 13 percent of applications. Homicide and assault, the third-largest category, was specified as the most serious offense in approximately 4 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 2018, for reported intercepts, installed wiretaps were in operation for an average of 37 days, 6 days shorter than the average in 2017. The federal wiretap with the most intercepts occurred during a narcotics investigation in the Southern District of Texas and resulted in the interception of 9,208,906 messages in 120 days. The state wiretap with the most intercepts was a 30-day wiretap for a sex trafficking investigation in Contra Costa, California, which resulted in the interception of 140,150 cell phone conversations and messages. See Table A-1 and Table B-1 for data on lengths and numbers of intercepts.

Encryption

The number of state wiretaps reported in which encryption was encountered increased from 102 in 2017 to 146 in 2018. In 134 of these state wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. A total of 74 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2018, of which 58 could not be decrypted.

Cost of Intercepts

Table 5 provides a summary of expenses related to wiretaps in 2018. The expenditures noted reflect the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications for the 1,260 authorizations for which reports included cost data. The average cost of an intercept in 2018 was $66,807, down 11 percent from the average cost in 2017. The most expensive state wiretap was in New York (the Supreme Court Appellate Division Second Department), where costs for a 365-day wiretap conducted to investigate an offense in the “other” category, which resulted in 17 arrests and no convictions, totaled $3,331,169. For federal wiretaps for which expenses were reported in 2018, the average cost was $67,926, a 9 percent increase from 2017. The most expensive federal wiretap completed during 2018 occurred in the Eastern District of California, where costs for a 90-day wiretap in a murder investigation that resulted in 40 arrests and no convictions totaled $1,192,390.

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 64 percent (1,077 cases) of the intercepts installed in 2018, 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, 2018, a total of 7,498 persons had been arrested (down 22 percent from 2017), and 1,122 persons had been convicted (down 42 percent from 2017). Federal wiretaps were responsible for 16 percent of the arrests and 19 percent of the convictions arising from wiretaps for this period. The District of Minnesota reported the most arrests and convictions for a federal district in 2018, with wiretaps there resulting in the arrest of 137 individuals and the conviction of 129 individuals. At the state level, Queens County, New York, reported the largest number of arrests (1456) and the highest number of convictions (398) in 2018.

Summary of Reports for Years Ending December 31, 2008, through December 31, 2018

Table 7 presents data on intercepts requested and authorized each year from 2008 to 2018. Authorized intercept applications reported by year increased 7 percent from 2,737 in 2008 to 2,937 in 2018. Most wiretaps have consistently been used for narcotics investigations, which accounted for 58 percent of intercepts reported in 2008 (1,593 applications) and 46 percent in 2018 (1,354) applications). Table 9 presents the total number of arrests and convictions resulting from intercepts terminated in calendar years 2008 through 2018.

Bar graph, wiretaps reported from 2008 to 2018

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 are first reported. Table 8 shows that a total of 7,932 arrests, 2,295 convictions, and additional costs of $61,254,707 arose from and were reported for wiretaps completed in previous years. Sixty-one percent of the supplemental reports of additional activity in 2018 involved wiretaps terminated in 2017. Interceptions concluded in 2017 led to 60 percent of arrests, 62 percent of convictions, and 57 percent of expenditures noted in the supplementary reports.


Following discovery of a technical issue, Tables 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, A1, and B1 in the 2017 Wiretap Report and Tables A1 and B1 in the 2016 Wiretap Report were revised and republished on September 7, 2018. The revisions did not require any changes to the text of those years’ Wiretap Report.

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, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire A1—Appendix Tables Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 322.83 KB)
Intercepts of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Authorized by State Courts and Terminated Wire B1 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire B1—Appendix Tables Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 274.65 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, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 1—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 11.49 KB)
Intercept Orders Issued by Judges Wire 2 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 2—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 28.37 KB)
Major Offenses for Which Court-Authorized Intercepts Were Granted Wire 3 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 3—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 21.89 KB)
Interceptions of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Wire 4 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 4—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 16.04 KB)
Average Cost per Order Wire 5 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 5—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 14.14 KB)
Types of Surveillance Used, Arrests, and Convictions for Intercepts Installed Wire 6 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 6—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 14.92 KB)
Authorized Intercepts Granted Wire 7 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 7—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 8.08 KB)
Supplementary Data for Intercepts Terminated in Prior Years as Reported Wire 8 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 8—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 11.88 KB)
Arrests and Convictions Resulting from Intercepts Installed Wire 9 December 31, 2018 Wiretap Download Table Wire 9—Wiretap Wiretap (December 31, 2018) (xlsx, 7.59 KB)