Wiretap usage up 34% in 2010

According to the latest annual report from the federal judiciary, the number of wiretaps and intercepts approved in 2010 at state and federal levels increased 34% over 2009.  That represents an increase of more than 800 wiretaps, and it surpasses the peak seen in 2007.  Unsurprisingly, drug investigations account for almost all of the requests:

Here’s some more fun facts from the report:

  • Of all the applications for wiretap intercepts, 84 percent (2,675) cited illegal drugs as the most serious offense under investigation. The top three state wiretaps resulting in the most arrests were all narcotics related.
  • The average cost of a wiretap was $50,085, down 4 percent from 2009.
  • The average number of persons whose communications were intercepted rose from 113 per wiretap order in 2009 to 118 per wiretap order in 2010.
  • Only 26 percent of intercepted communications in 2010 were incriminating. Only one request for authorization was denied.
  • The top three states with approved wiretap applications were California, New York and New Jersey.

There isn’t any kidding about the top three states, either.  California accounted for a third of all state requests (33%), with New York accounting for almost a quarter (24%) and New Jersey getting the bronze at 11%.  These three states account for 68% of all state wiretap requests.  New York and New Jersey have well-known problems with organized crime, but why is California — with a population just slightly larger than New York — surpassing both by such a large amount?  Most likely, violent gang-related drug trafficking is the reason, but it’s a little mind-boggling to think that one in every three state-level wiretap requests comes from one single state.  Californians might want to ask whether the police are going a little crazy with the intercepts in the Golden State.

Actually, everyone should ask that question, and not just of the police.  In over 3100 wiretap requests, only one judge — one — bothered to deny a request from police, even though only 26% of intercepts provided any incriminating information in the end.  I’m not philosophically opposed to wiretaps if actual probable cause exists for law enforcement to pursue them, but given that the average number of individuals who unknowingly lose their privacy per wiretap has risen to 118, and only 26% of those orders provide any kind of usable evidence, it sounds like a pretty bad trade in terms of privacy.  Put those numbers together, and we end up with 278,900 citizens having their privacy invaded in vain in 2010.  That’s roughly the population of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Clearly, we have a problem with the use of wiretaps — and the problem is getting worse.  Here’s the chart from the report showing the growth of wiretap requests over the last twelve years, and note that this data does not include national-security wiretaps, which go through FISA courts:

Note that wiretaps have increased significantly at both levels — but look at the rapid growth of federal wiretaps over the last three years.  The total for 2010 far exceeds the most active year of the Bush administration, which had been widely criticized for its use of wiretaps (with and without warrants) in national-security investigations.  After 2004, which was only slightly above the 2000-2 level, federal wiretaps declined steadily — until 2009.   The Obama administration has vastly expanded the use of intercepts in non-FISA applications.

As Glenn Reynolds says, they told me if I voted for John McCain, Big Brother would be snooping more and more — and they were right!  The Obama administration needs to explain this vastly-expanded use of intercepts, especially given their success rate, and their motivation for aggressively pursuing wiretaps.