US Courts' Wiretap Report Shows Wiretaps Are For Drugs And Warrants Are Rejected Only .03% Of The Time

from the so,-those-seven-were-like,-processing-errors-or-something? dept

The US Courts system has just released its annual report on wiretap warrants. As you'll recall, warrants are those quaint permission slips that law enforcement officers occasionally seek before performing searches. (Although it looks as though they'll be doing it more frequently from now on…)

Not included in this report are outlying actions by agencies whose rogueness has been codified. The US Courts FAQ on the report points out that data from the FISA court is not included. Presumably, the previously illegal warrantless wiretaps deployed by the federal government aren't being tracked either, because if there's no warrant, there's no court. And if there's no court, there's no oversight.

Also not included are pen register/trap and trace orders, which are basically given the same amount of scrutiny that subpoenas and NSLs are given: very little, if any.

No report to the AO is required for the use of a pen register (a device attached to a telephone line that records or decodes impulses identifying the numbers dialed from that line) unless the pen register is used in conjunction with any wiretap devices whose use must be recorded. No statistics are collected on the number of devices used in conjunction with each order.
The US Courts system has handily provided ten years of data on wiretap warrants and everything in it points to one thing -- US law enforcement is almost exclusively focused on fighting the War on Drugs.

Of the 22,741 warrants issued since 2003, 21,838 (96%) were issued under the heading of "Narcotics." And the warrants themselves are ridiculously easy to obtain (giving lie to law enforcement's complaints about the complexity of securing a search warrant). To obtain these 22,741 warrants, 22,748 applications were submitted. Only 7 applications have been rejected since 2003, giving law enforcement a batting average of .99969.

So, we know drugs are big business for law enforcement. At an average of $41,119 per intercept deployed, expenses for just the drug-related wiretaps in 2013 easily tops the $100,000,000 mark, and that's assuming all of those adhered to that average (the average was taken from 2,069 wiretaps where costs were reported.) The cost per intercept seems to be coming down (it was over $62,000 in 2003) but the number of intercepts has doubled over the same time period. The US Courts' information page also notes that further expenses are often reported after the reporting period has ended. (It points to an additional $62 million in expenses reported in 2013 for wiretaps issued in previous years.) Drugs are not just a multi-billion dollar business for distributors. With this intense focus on one particular form of crime, law enforcement has become just as big a "customer" of the drug business as drug users.

That data may not be particularly surprising, but it does reveal just how much attention is being paid to a narrow range of criminals. Nowhere does the report indicate anything has been deployed to combat terrorism, which is often the stated reason for obtaining bigger and better ex-military weapons and vehicles. It could be that wiretaps issued for counterterrorism are hidden under other designations or done without court approval. Or it could be that there's simply not nearly as much domestic terrorism activity as law enforcement officials claim.

The more surprising data, especially when coupled with the fact that US courts have only rejected .00031 of the wiretap applications that cross their desks, is the sheer number of people and communications being swept up by single warrants.

San Mateo County, California had only one wiretap warrant issued (probably related to the investigation of Sen. Leland Yee), but it was able to put a whole lot of people under surveillance with that single document. Its single intercept gathered communications from 588 people, with a total of 19,477 interceptions… of which only 513 proved to be incriminating. (It should be noted that intercepted communications can also include text messages, a form of communication that can easily cause these numbers to swell to ridiculous proportions.)

Likewise, Franklin County, Ohio also sought only one wiretap order, but it, too, had a huge payoff -- 551 people, 9,654 communications with 454 deemed incriminating (most likely related to this drug bust).

But with all these large numbers and expenses come massive amounts of arrests and indictments, right?

Well, not really. Even accounting for the fact that it can take years before the results of an investigation result in jail time, the percentage of convictions resulting from wiretap-related arrests seems to be hovering right around 45%. And the number of arrests is far smaller than number of people whose communications were intercepted during the course of the investigation.

In 2003, 167,272 people had their communications tapped (with 4.3 million communications intercepted) but this has only resulted in (to date) 5,705 arrests and 2,523 convictions. 2004 was even worse, with 215,460 people surveilled (5.1 million communications intercepted). The end result, a decade on? 6,717 arrests and 2,815 convictions.

If these patterns hold (and there's no evidence they won't), the hit rate of wiretap deployments will continue to fall, at least in terms of arrests and convictions. The average number of people tapped by an order last year was "only" 97 (the number has hovered between 100-110 over the course of the last decade) but the average number of communications harvested from each wiretap has been increasing over the past several years. Last year, it was 4,558 communications per wiretap (2003/2004 were 3,004/3,017 per) and the number of wiretaps issued has more than doubled in that same period. 2013's numbers are astounding: 346,872 people surveilled with 16,299,408 communications intercepted, with less than 3 million declared "incriminating."

Within those numbers is another interesting fact: encryption is rarely used and even when it is, it's rarely effective.
The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered increased from 15 in 2012 to 41 in 2013. In nine of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. Encryption was also reported for 52 state wiretaps that were conducted during previous years, but reported to the AO for the first time in 2013. Officials were able to decipher the plain text of the communications in all 52 intercepts.
Contrast this minimal number with the thousands of devices tapped with the claim made by the US government (in the US v. Wurie warrantless cell phone search case) that requiring warrants would put law enforcement at the mercy of tech-savvy criminals.
[S]earching an arrestee's cell phone immediately upon arrest is often critical to protecting evidence against concealment in a locked or encrypted phone or remote destruction.The numerous party and amicus briefs in these cases have not seriously undermined that fundamental practical point. Although the briefs identify various techniques to prevent the remote-wiping problem (none of which is close to perfect), they barely address the principal problem that the government identified: automatic passcode-locking and encryption.
There is no tech arms race. Encryption was encountered 41 times durings the states' surveillance of over 200,000 people. The encryption "held" only nine times. All fifty-two times the federal government encountered it during its surveillance of millions of people over the last several years, it was able to defeat it.

The US Court system has proven indistinguishable from the FISA Court with its approval rate that's only .03% away from 100%. Likewise, the surveillance it approves sweeps up tons of "incidental" communications from completely innocent parties. The end result, however, is possibly more futile than the War on Terror. The Drug War isn't headed for a win, nor will it ever be. It will never even be a tie. This has gone on for 40 years and the only "benefit" has been increased budget lines for law enforcement agencies and the steady militarization of local police forces. Billions of dollars in taxes are being poured into a battle many Americans don't feel is worth fighting, while the system itself remains largely insulated against public opinion. Judges are granting nearly anything as long as the word "drugs" appears on the request and law enforcement agencies know this.

If nothing else, this reports shows that law enforcement should never have a problem with seeking a warrant. Even large-scale surveillance efforts (like the sweeping up the communications of 500+ people with a single wiretap request) are flying through the court system without a hitch.






Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    David, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 2:44pm

    You don't get it

    If nothing else, this reports shows that law enforcement should never have a problem with seeking a warrant.

    You don't seem to understand that getting a warrant signed for every national-security-related wiretap would literally cripple our court system.

    Hand cramps are a thing.

     

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  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 2:46pm

    Now imagine...

    ...if they only put that kind of effort into fighting corporate financial fraud and tax evasion.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 3:23pm

    "with all these large numbers and expenses come massive amounts of arrests and indictments, right?"

    Let's try that again:

    "with all these large numbers and expenses come massive amounts of paperwork and endless jobs for career paper-pushers, middle-men and women, assorted pompous administrators, self-important clock-watchers, miscellaneous hangers-on and contracts for friends of friends, right?"

    Sounds more like it's just another job creation scheme.

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 4:09pm

    Legalize drugs

    Sounds like a good argument for legalizing drugs.

     

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  5.  
    identicon
    Musical Dunce, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 4:15pm

    bad engrish

    Wait, is that an extraneous "Are" in the title?

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    Musical Dunce, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 4:17pm

    Re: bad engrish

    No, but it is tortured (yuck, yuck!)

     

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  7.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Jul 7th, 2014 @ 6:02pm

    It says here you're wanting to 'Search the pet-store fish tanks for buried treasure'?

    Given how insanely easy it is to get a warrant, for, apparently, pretty much any reason whatsoever, you almost have to wonder if the handful of refused ones are due to a) the judge actually reading the warrant request details before pulling out the 'APPROVED' stamp, or b) the cops, knowing full well they can put whatever they want down and have it approved, putting down completely insane things and getting caught out via the first reason.

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Techanon, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 8:55pm

    "If nothing else, this reports shows that law enforcement should never have a problem with seeking a warrant. Even large-scale surveillance efforts (like the sweeping up the communications of 500+ people with a single wiretap request) are flying through the court system without a hitch."

    I think their problem with getting warrants is this report itself. They are afraid of people noticing patterns in their warrant requests.

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    David, Jul 7th, 2014 @ 10:45pm

    Protection racket

    The "war on drugs" like the "war on terror" is "for your protection".

    Fascism needs fearmongering like capitalism needs advertising. Sure, it's not really believable, but keep it up and it will be habit-forming, making the stupid feel smart until the smart think there must be something to it if everybody else thinks the same.

    In the end, nobody wants to be the uncool kid on the block. The one wearing the wrong colors. The one who does not get into rhythmic chanting when asked "do you want the redskins/drugdealers/terrorists to win?". The one who selects his pants because of reinforced knees rather than a bottom playing the Star-Spangled Banner when you are crapping them.

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 8th, 2014 @ 12:35am

    The King's English please, douche hammer. Good grief.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    icon
    Seegras (profile), Jul 8th, 2014 @ 3:21am

    Re: Legalize drugs

    > That data may not be particularly surprising, but it does
    > reveal just how much attention is being paid to a narrow
    > range of criminals

    Should of course read "... to a narrow range of criminalized ..."

    Just because some puritan pukes in bed with nylon manufacturers managed to outlaw drugs, doesn't make these laws any more moral or right.

     

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  12.  
    icon
    Ninja (profile), Jul 8th, 2014 @ 3:35am

    I was in a discussion these days with one of our trolls where he claimed that getting warrants was hard, slow process. This would fit perfectly there... The Police State-happy crew should just come out clear and admit all they want is total control instead of using lousy excuses.

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 8th, 2014 @ 6:29am

    Re: Now imagine...

    As insightful of a comment you posted, they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they did that, with a merger of corporate and state interests, the fascist state surely does not want to do anything hurting the other, except sometimes when the pressure is so bad that the media has no choice but to pummel certain entities. (Remember 3-4 months ago when a bank (I forgot which, it's as big as Goldman Sachs for sure) got fined 2 billion dollars.

    They must have severely pissed off the white house for this to happen. Apparently it was related to fraud which caused some of the 2008 economic downturn.

    To stay on topic, legalize all drugs, ALL drugs, get rid of the useless doctor you have to see to get any medication you want. Doctors should mostly be in hospitals, I find the whole gatekeeper to your health thing bullshit. I mean sure, let's say you simply want blood tests to be done, you present yourself to the hospital and they just do it and a technician and then a doctor (whom you never even see) analyzes the findings and if something is wrong, then they should call you for an appointment. Lots of money saved right there.

    And if I want Xanax/Restoril/Valium as much as I want to not go fucking mad because of this f'd up world we live in (and no goddamn antidepressants that makes you MORE anxious before they supposedly start to actually work a month and a half later, well in the case of SSRI's/SNRI's). There is a war on anxiolytic medication, eveyrone who's scripted one benzodiazepine knows how much trouble it is, even when you have a valid script, pharmacists treating you like a heroin junkie for example.

    That one time I hurt myself real bad while street skateboarding and they didn't think anything of my MS IR (instant release morphine, orally morphine isn't that strong...) script I got from the ER, didn't even tell me about the interactions I knew existed between benzos and opiates (makes you even more chill/euphoric/but could make you stop breathing...that warning is exagerated to me, I have bad asthma and the combo of both never made me feel like I was out of air.... The cigarettes at the gas station sure do. And with benzodiazepines, there aren't "illicit" versions of them on the streets, unlike heroin, which is just another opiate. Why it is singled out while things like 30mg HydromorphContins and 40mg Opanas (Oxymorphone) exist and are stronger than heroin, even when eaten, when it comes to Opana (also Oxycontin (oxycodone)).

    Sorry bout the rant, this article got me real riled up. I don't even take illegal drugs, I smoked some weed a couple years everyday then it boring, but I never regretted doing it the next morning puking bile in the toilet and feeling my liver hurting for 48 hours from marijuana.

    The only thing to watch for about weed by the way, is it being laced by synthetic cannabinoids. Some of those chemicals sold on underground websites are ridiculously strong, yet the government doesn't ban most of them, at least mine doesn't. The big myth about laced weed and overly white buds passed off as thc crystals (yeah, thc does appear in the trichomes, but I've seen people just faded out 5 hours from smoking a tiny amount of really sketch bud which you could shake and see the chemical powder literally fall down in the bag. It's the same kind of cannabinoids that was in those Spice or K2 bags they sell in "head shops" in the US, thankfully this shit never really caught on like in the US. I, as a pharmacologist am terrified of what those extremely powerful FULL AGONISTS OF THE CBD RECEPTORS (thc is a partial cbd1/2 agonist). A lot of assholes in the US in fully prohibitionist states add those chemicals to weed, according to forensic reports I have seen about the US Drug War in general (I live up north, where weed isn't legal except by prescription everywhere, but the cops don't really give a shit about weed, they even stopped going after weed growers in my province).

    Anyways, I am in a really bad mood, but I hope some of my ramblings contain some interesting tidbits.

     

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  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 8th, 2014 @ 6:36am

    Re: Protection racket

    I'm not sure if that last sentence of yours here makes sense, but I get the gist of it.

     

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  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 8th, 2014 @ 6:37am

    Re:

    They kinda have disappeared lately, anybody noticed? oot--- nevermind, I do not want to summon it.

     

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  16.  
    icon
    weneedhelp (profile), Jul 8th, 2014 @ 6:42am

    US Courts' Wiretap Report Shows Wiretaps Are For Drugs And Warrants Are Rejected Only .03% Of The Time

    Typo?

     

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  17.  
    identicon
    TestPilotDummy, Jul 8th, 2014 @ 9:13am

    As long as you actually Meant.

    US Courts' Wiretap Report Shows:
    Wiretaps Are For Drugs.
    Warrants Are Rejected Only .03% Of The Time

    It makes it clear that the War On Terrorism is 100% poop. The real targets are the American People by the Oath Breakers of the Establishment.

    Flash Back to Andy Griffith Show.

    Now Opie, I can't listen to that tape because it's just wrong, it's Unconstitutional. It doesn't MATTER what's on it, I would be as bas as the person you want to go after if I listened to that tape, now your going to have to take that tape back, or destroy it if the owner is dead.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    icon
    nasch (profile), Jul 8th, 2014 @ 9:23am

    Re: Re: Legalize drugs

    Just because some puritan pukes in bed with nylon manufacturers managed to outlaw drugs, doesn't make these laws any more moral or right.

    Calling someone a criminal means they have broken a law. It doesn't include any judgment about whether that law is moral.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    icon
    Jack Of Shadows (profile), Jul 8th, 2014 @ 9:15pm

    Incentives

    Given the financial incentives (seizures) I'm not surprised that drugs cases tops the list, nor am I very surprised at the less than ideal conviction rate. How many of those people get their assets back? Worthy of a study certainly although don't look to me to conduct it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 9th, 2014 @ 2:36am

    Re:

    One has just to look at the famous episode of Breaking Bad in the junkyard where Hank is trying to B&E the RV while trespassing into Old Joe's junkyard. Old Joe is no dummy and is able to stall Hank's unwarranted search so Hank goes "You want a warrant? I'll have it within an hour and delivered to you on a little satin pillow". And sure enough he was going to get it in about 30 minutes before Walt pulled his quite genius but horrific trick to get Hank away...

    And please, no "this is just tv", Breaking Bad is VERY realistic of a show, that's why I liked it, probably the only series worth watching in the 2000's/10's.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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