Friday, May 2, 2008

Annual Wiretap Report Released (

The Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts released its 2007 Wiretap Report to Congress recently. The statute requires that specific information be reported each year "including the offense(s) under investigation, the location of the intercept, the cost of the surveillance, and the number of arrests, trials, and convictions that directly result from the surveillance."

According to the report: "A total of 2,208 intercepts authorized by federal and state courts were completed in 2007, an increase of 20 percent compared to the number terminated in 2006. The number of applications for orders by federal authorities fell less than 1 percent to 457. The number of applications reported by state prosecuting officials grew 27 percent to 1,751, with 24 states providing reports, 1 more than in 2006."

However, there is a catch. The Feds did not include data "involving sensitive and/or sealed matters". That means the report had to include this little gem: "Statistics indicate that if all intercepts undertaken for federal investigations in 2007 were reported, the 2007 Wiretap Report would not reflect any decrease in the use of court-approved electronic surveillance by the agencies." Given that Federal wiretaps reported are below the ten year average, it is virtually certain that the actual number of wiretaps is higher, though probably not hugely so.

The report goes on to say: "Installed wiretaps were in operation an average of 44 days per wiretap in 2007, compared to 40 days in 2006." This came at an average cost of over $48,000 per wiretap! The most common specific location for the wiretap was a “portable device, carried by/on individual” by a very large margin -- 94% of wiretaps were on cell phones, etc.

81% of all applications for wiretaps stated that drug offenses were the most serious crime under consideration. There is not even a category for terrorism on the chart provided. It is unclear if this is because terrorism is included in the "other" category (which, at the federal and state level combined, accounted for only 30 wiretaps) or because these are "sensitive and/or sealed matters".

Arrests vs. conviction rate told the most interesting story to me, however. The graph below (built by me using the data from Table 9 of the report) shows the percent of convictions in cases where wiretaps were used versus the total number of wiretaps authorized per year (I have normalized the number of wiretaps by dividing the total by 100 so that both lines could easily fit on the same graph. To get the actual number of taps, you need to multiply the raw number by 100). I have also added a trendline to both sets of data. It appears that the number of arrests is staying more or less the same but that the number of convictions is dropping. This might just be a statistical artifact (arrests are often made months or years after the intercept is made) but it is still a trend worth noticing.

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