U.S. Courts Release 2017 Wiretap Report: Orders and Convictions Rise, No Requests Denied, 10 States Absent, No FISA Data


by Aaron Kesel, Activist Post:

Federal courts across the U.S. reported a 30 percent increase in authorized wiretaps in 2017, compared to 2016, that’s up 73% over ten years according to a Judiciary report released by the Administration Office of the U.S. Federal Courts. Meanwhile, state courts in comparison reported an 11 percent rise in wiretap requests.

Although arrests did fall in cases involving surveillance, the trade-off is convictions rose sharply. The 2017 Wiretap Report covers intercepts of wire, oral and electronic communications that were concluded between January 1st, 2017, and December 31st, 2017.

It’s very important to note the report, which is required to be submitted annually to Congress by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, does not include data on interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) regarding Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) warrants.

That report is separate and can be viewed here. In contrast to State and Federal Court requests, FISC denied 26 applications in full and 50 applications in part, while the Court modified orders in an additional 391 applications and granted the orders of 1,147 warrant request.

FISA was enacted in 1978 as a response to illegal domestic surveillance operations revealed by two Senate committees in the 1970s, including President Richard Nixon’s use of federal intelligence agencies to monitor his political opponents. It was brought into law “to authorize electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information.”

The law requires the government to obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before setting up an electronic or physical wiretap targeted at foreigners and foreign agents.

Congress amended FISA in 2007 to let the government wiretap communications that either begin or end outside the United States jurisdiction without Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) approval; in a stronger 2008 overhaul, they further limited that power to non-U.S. persons. The last reauthorization of the Act was in 2012, which set the current expiration date of Dec. 31, 2017.

The FISA law has long been criticized by privacy and civil liberties advocates like the EFF who say the order allows broad, intrusive spying without oversight. The section first gained renewed attention following the 2013 disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the agency carried out widespread monitoring of emails and other electronic communications through Prism, XKeyScore, Upstream and other NSA surveillance programs. In fact, the first Snowden leak was a FISC order issued to Verizon under Section 702 that required the company to turn over all of its calling records to the NSA.

Another key factor to mention about the recently released court transparency record is ten of the 94 federal court districts failed to submit warrant information. So, in fact, the information provided is incomplete; this means that the total figure of authorized wiretaps in 2017 is much higher then the publicly available percent being up 73% over ten years, and 30% over last year alone.

According to what is public, a whopping total of 3,813 wiretaps were authorized in 2017 compared to 3,168 the previous year. Of those wiretaps on electronic devices, 2,013 were authorized by federal judges compared to just a mere 1,551 in 2016. A total of 1,800 wiretaps were authorized by state judges compared to 1,617 in 2016.

An even further scary fact to note about this report, absolutely no wiretap applications were reported as denied by both State and Federal tribunals in 2017. That means that no requests were denied by judges and seen as inadequate reasoning to employ surveillance tactics against Americans.

If that isn’t frightening enough, a total of 2,369 extensions were reported as requested and approved in just 2017, permitting wiretaps to continue after their initial 30-day authorization had expired.

That represents a 13 percent increase in extensions compared with the previous year, according to the report.

Further, the number of state wiretaps in which encryption occurred continued to rise significantly, with 102 reports in 2017 compared to 57 in 2016 and just a mere seven in 2015. The average cost of a wiretap in 2017 was $74,718, down less than 1 percent from $74,949 in 2016.

In 97 of the wiretaps reported in 2017, officials were unable to decipher plain text of messages. A total of 57 federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2017, of which 37 could not be deciphered.

There were 9,565 persons who were arrested in wiretap investigations, down approximately 23 percent from 2016. While the number of arrests fell, overall convictions rose 55 percent from 2016.

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