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Court-Approved Wiretapping Rose 14% in '07

Ryan Singel

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Last year might have been a rough year for U.S. home prices, but growth in government wiretaps remained healthy, with the eavesdropping sector posting a 14% increase in court orders compared to 2006. In 2007, judges approved 4,578 state and federal wiretaps, as compared to 4,015 in 2006, according to two new reports on criminal and intelligence wiretaps.

State investigators are increasingly turning to wiretaps, according to newly released statistics.

Diagram: Adminstrative Office of U.S. Courts

State police applied for 27% more wiretaps in 2007 than in 2006, with 94% of them targeting cell phones, according to figures released by the U.S. Courts' administrator. In 2007, state judges approved 1,751 criminal wiretap applications, without turning any of them down, according to  the report (.pdf). That's a near-three fold increase in state wiretaps since 1997. Federal criminal wiretaps remained fairly constant -- hovering around 500 -- though exact numbers aren't known since the Justice Department has begun withholding information from the administrators of the U.S. court regarding sensitive investigations.

As for wiretaps aimed at suspected spies and terrorists, the feds applied for 2,370 orders for wiretaps and physical searches from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to a separate annual wiretap report (.pdf) to Congress. The court modified 86 of these, and rejected three. The number of approved applications are up 9%  from 2006, when the government approved 2,176 applications.

It's unclear how many people these orders applied to since they can name more than one target, and in January 2007, the Bush Administration began getting so-called basket warrants from the secret court, in order to reduce the political heat over its warrantless wiretapping program.

Those orders, which the administration described as "innovative," likely covered many individuals or entire geographic regions and required periodic re-authorization from the court. Sometime in spring 2007, one judge on the court ruled that the orders were unconstitutional, prompting a summer fear-mongering campaign to get Congress to expand the government's warrantless wiretapping powers.

The ability to issue blanker surveillance orders with little court oversight expired in February 2008, causing a ongoing political fight in Congress over how far to expand the president's wiretapping powers and whether to give legal amnesty to the telecoms that helped the government spy on Americans' phone and internet communications without getting warrants.

Additionally, the Justice Department announced that due to the increasing numbers of FISA wiretaps, it is creating a new office in its National Security Division, the Office of Intelligence. It will be broken into three parts: one focused on writing FISA applications, one dedicated to oversight of intelligence investigations and another to help prosecutors who want to use the secret FISA wiretaps in regular court cases -- which is increasingly common with the dismantling of the so-called wall between criminal and intelligence investigations.

Other fun tidbits: None of the state or federal criminal wiretaps ran into any problems with encryption (which is not surprising, given most target cellphones). And one state wiretap in Queens County, New York, snagged 185,600 cell phone messages over 363 days. 100,000 of those were incriminating, the report said.