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2018 Report: 23% Decrease in Authorized Wiretaps

Convictions in cases involving electronic surveillance also fell sharply.

Federal and state courts reported a combined 23 percent decrease in authorized wiretaps in 2018, compared with 2017, according to the Judiciary’s 2018 Wiretap report. Convictions in cases involving electronic surveillance also fell sharply.

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The report is submitted annually to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. It covers wire, oral or electronic intercepts that were concluded between January 1, 2018, and December 31, 2018. The report does not include data on interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

A total of 2,937 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2018, compared with 3,813 the previous year. Of those, 1,457 were authorized by federal judges, a 28 percent decline from 2017. State judges authorized 1,480 wiretaps, 18 percent less than in 2017. Two wiretap applications were reported as denied in 2018.

The number of state wiretaps in which encryption occurred continued to rise, with 146 such reports in 2018, compared with 102 in 2017 and 57 in 2016. In 134 of the encrypted state wiretaps reported in 2018, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of messages. A total of 74 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2018, of which 58 could not be deciphered.

Portable electronic devices accounted for 96 percent of applications for intercepts. Drug investigations also remained the most common type of crime. Telephone wiretaps accounted for 64 percent of intercepts installed in 2018—most involving cellphones.

The report said 7,498 persons were arrested in wiretap investigations, down 22 percent from the 9,565 persons arrested in 2017. A total of 1,122 persons were convicted in cases involving wiretaps, 42 percent less than in 2017.

A total of 1,355 extensions were reported as requested and authorized in 2018, permitting wiretaps to continue after their initial 30-day authorization had expired. That represents a 43  percent decrease in extensions, compared with 2,369 extensions requested the previous year.

The Northern District of Illinois conducted the longest federal intercept that was terminated in 2018. The order was extended eight times to complete a 270-day wiretap. The longest state-authorized wiretap occurred in the Bronx, New York, where the original order was extended 24 times to complete a 250-day wiretap used in a larceny investigation.

Other highlights from the 2018 Wiretap Report:

  • 46 percent of all wiretaps cited narcotics as the most serious offense under investigation, compared with 53 percent in 2017. Conspiracy investigations accounted for 13 percent, and homicide investigations accounted for 4 percent.
  • Applications in six states (California, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Jersey) accounted for 82 percent of all state wiretap applications. California alone accounted for 24 percent of all applications approved by state judges.
  • The average cost of a wiretap in 2018 was $67,926, down 11 percent from $74,718 in 2017.

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.

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