Federal and state courts reported a combined 10 percent increase in authorized wiretaps in 2019, compared with 2018, according to the Judiciary’s 2019 Wiretap Report. Convictions in cases involving electronic surveillance also increased.
The report covers wire, oral, or electronic intercepts that were concluded between Jan. 1, 2019, and Dec. 31, 2019, 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.
A total of 3,225 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2019, compared with 2,937 the previous year. Of those, 1,417 were authorized by federal judges, a 3 percent decline from 2018. State judges authorized 1,808 wiretaps, a 22 percent increase from the previous year.
The number of state wiretaps in which encryption occurred continued to rise, with 343 such reports in 2019, compared with 146 in 2018 and 102 in 2017. In 334 of the encrypted state wiretaps reported in 2019, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of messages. A total of 121 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2019, of which 104 could not be deciphered.
Portable electronic devices, which includes cell phones, accounted for 94 percent of applications for intercepts. Drug offenses were the most prevalent type of crime investigated using intercepts. Seventy-six percent of all wiretap applications in 2019 cited narcotics as one of the offenses under investigation. Conspiracy was the second-most frequently cited crime (13 percent of total applications), and homicide and assault were the third largest category, cited in 4 percent of applications.
A total of 10,584 people was arrested as a result of wiretap investigations in 2019, up 41 percent from 2018, and 2,699 were convicted in cases involving wiretaps, up 141 percent from the 1,122 people convicted in those types of cases the year before.
The Southern District of New York authorized the most federal wiretaps, accounting for about 5 percent of applications approved by federal judges. Among states, applications in California and New York alone constituted half of all wiretaps approved by state judges.
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 2,528 extensions were authorized in 2019, an increase of 87 percent from the prior year.
The Northern District of Illinois conducted the longest federal intercept that was terminated in 2019. One order was extended 13 times to complete a 388-day wiretap. An order in the District of Arizona was extended 11 times to complete a 355-day wiretap in a narcotics investigation.
The longest state-authorized wiretap occurred in Queens, New York, where an order was extended 27 times to complete a 756-day wiretap used in a corruption investigation.
The average cost of a wiretap in 2019 was $75,160, up 13 percent from $67,926 the year before. The numbers include the cost of installing intercept devices and monitoring communications.
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.