Federal authorities’ use of wiretaps to intercept wire, oral and electronic communications in criminal investigations jumped substantially in 2012, versus the prior year, according to figures obtained by the Washington Post.
Federal courts reportedly authorized a total of 1,354 wiretaps in 2012, up from 792 in 2011, a 71 percent increase in the use of the controversial surveillance method.
In total, 3,743 arrests were made due to incriminating evidence obtained by the wiretaps, 455 of which have so far resulted in convictions.
The vast majority of those wiretaps -- all of them aside from 14, in fact -- were aimed at cellphones, according to the Washington Post.
A single wiretap can result in authorities’ collection of thousands of individual calls. The paper noted, for instance, that one 30-day, local wiretap in California generated 185,268 cellular phone intercepts, 12 percent of which proved incriminating.
The jump was decried by one watchdog attorney as, “one more piece of evidence demonstrating the need for a full, informed public debate about the scope, breadth and pervasiveness of government surveillance in this country.”
“We have a secret surveillance program churning in the background, sweeping in everyone’s communications,” wrote Mark Rumold of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in an email to The Post. “At the same time, in the shadows (and frequently under seal), law enforcement is constantly expanding its use and reliance on surveillance in traditional criminal investigations.”
The Justice Department did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment, and there was no analysis or explanation for the large increase noted in the report containing the statistics. Meanwhile, The Post noted a 5 percent rise in state and local law enforcement’s employment of wiretaps during the same period.
The Post portrayed the jump in federal wiretaps secured in 2012 as uncharacteristic of year-over-year increases shown by statistics between 1997 and 2009.
The paper said the government averaged 550 wiretaps over that 13-year period. However, 2010 seemed a particularly robust year for federal wiretaps, with a reported 1,207 secured.