•  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

As required by federal law, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) recently disseminated a report detailing the nature and scope of all wiretaps, known as intercepts, in the United States last year.

Based upon the report, it appears that the overwhelming majority of wiretaps were related to drug offenses using portable devices, including cell phones, smartphones, and pagers; and, only a very small number of these recordings contained incriminating evidence.

Increasing last year by five percent, 3,576 state and federal wiretaps recorded the communications of Americans. Most of these, 2,100, were authorized by state judges for local and state investigations. Only one state wiretap in 2013 was denied.

Here in Philadelphia, it appears that all 21 intercept requests by law enforcement received judicial approval: 4 federal and 17 state. Of these, every single one was related to drug offenses and involved the use of “portable devices.” Statewide, the Pennsylvania State Attorney General requested an additional 26 wiretaps, too; only one of those was for a corruption investigation, the rest were for narcotics investigations.

Now, most wiretaps expire after 30 days, but extensions are typically requested by law enforcement and, just as typically, granted by the courts. Local and state law enforcement in Philadelphia, for example, had a cumulative total of 668 days of recordings of Americans thanks to drug-related wiretaps and 105 court-granted extensions in 2013 alone.

“Particularly when combined with the failed war on drugs, wiretaps and other methods of surveillance can have devastating consequences on the lives of individuals, on families and entire communities,” writes Reggie Shuford, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in an email to Philly Now. “We see that impact all too clearly here in Philadelphia.”

Interestingly enough, more rural and suburban counties in America seemed to rely on surveillance than large urban areas like Philadelphia. The AO states that the most intercepts in the nation occurred during a “194-day wiretap for a narcotics investigation in Gwinnett County, Georgia, which resulted in the interception of 187,091 cell phone conversations and text messages.” In that investigation, a mere 13 percent “of the messages that were intercepted were incriminating.”

Shuford says that’s not enough to justify the intrusions into privacy. “This surveillance rarely leads to incriminating evidence,” Shuford adds. “That’s hardly worth the infringements on our civil liberties.” Over the past year in Pennsylvania, the legislature and courts have taken an arguably hostile posture toward civil liberties, too, with the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruling that police no longer need a warrant to search vehicles in the commonwealth.

Along with that ruling, the state legislature in Harrisburg is contemplating banning so-called “secret compartments” in automobiles. In that instance, Philadelphia Weekly’s Randy LoBasso called the proposed measure outright “Orwellian.” “We should all be concerned about the ever increasing level of surveillance in our society,” concludes Shuford in his email, “lest we wake up one day to a full police state.”

About The Author

Contributing columnist

Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His @PhillyWeekly column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” took the 2014 First Place Spotlight Award for weekly newspaper commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists and the 2014 Second Place Award for weekly newspaper commentary in the United States and Canada from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. He also blogs daily for PW on various topics including queer culture and news, mass transit, politics, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, civil liberties, activism, media and everything else Philly.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Login with your Social ID

Your email address will not be published.