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Non-Secret Wiretapping Is Out Of Control Too

Wiretaps are at an all-time high. But the number of resulting convictions is at an all-time low.

Last updated on July 3, 2013, at 11:12 a.m. ET

Posted on July 3, 2013, at 11:12 a.m. ET

Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters

While we were busy reading about secret NSA surveillance programs, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts released its annual Wiretap Report. It paints a clear picture: The number of requests approved in 2012 by federal judges increased 71% from the year before. When including state-approved wiretaps, there was a 24% increase. This adds up to a 120% increase compared with 10 years ago.

Overall, there were 3,395 federal and state authorizations for wiretapping, 74% of which were acted upon. The government spent an estimated $126 million on these wiretaps.

"Authorizations" are for individual devices — 97% of which were cell phones — but each one captures communication from an average of 104 people and 3,584 individual calls, texts, or emails. While you can't tell how many people were targeted multiple times, that's almost 9 million phone calls and other communications surveilled by the government in the service of criminal investigations.

Yet despite the increases, the number of resulting convictions was the lowest seen in a decade. Overall, 455 people who were targeted were convicted. But just 114 of those were based on evidence collected through wiretapping. That's only about 3.4%.

The numbers are a reminder that digital surveillance is rising steeply not just behind closed doors, or as the result of secret government programs, but in broad daylight.