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U.S. wiretaps fall for first time in five years
Published: 2009-05-01

The number of warrants issued by courts for oral, wire and electronic communications, and completed in 2008, fell last year fell to 1,891 and involved only two incidents of encrypted data, according to an annual report released this week by the Administrative Offices of the United States Courts.

Almost all of the wiretaps — 97 percent — involved eavesdropping on telephone communications, including cellular phones, the report stated. Combined wiretaps, which are used for surveilling a cellular or mobile phone with another type of eavesdropping, were used in 2 percent of the cases. The cases only include those warrants requested by law enforcement and not surveillance requested by intelligence agencies, such as the National Security Agency, whose broad wiretapping has raised the concern of civil-liberties advocates.

In only two cases did law enforcement encounter encryption, but — interestingly — "neither instance prevented officials from obtaining the plain text of the communications," the report stated.

For the most part, in almost 1,600 cases, the wiretaps resulted in drug charges against the targets. An average of 92 people's conversations were captured by each wiretap.

While the number of warrants issued to federal law enforcement for wiretapping has dropped every year since 2004, this is the first year that state agencies requested fewer warrants for wiretaps.

Agencies are only required to report wiretap warrants in the year they are completed. Some surveillance requests may not be reported if they are not yet completed or if the investigation continues.

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Posted by: Robert Lemos
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