A ten-year study of how state and federal law enforcement wiretaps suspects shows that the government is extremely efficient at the practice, and is only getting better.
The new report, conducted by the Federal Judiciary, looked at the prevalence of the FBI and state and local police petitioning for a warrant to surveil someone. Methods range from tracking their computer activity to bugging a home telephone or a room, though it overwhelmingly—96 percent of the time 2015—meant tracking or listening to their cell phone calls. It has become a common enough practice that in a ten-year span, a wiretap request has been denied only eight times, and never more than twice in a year. According to the report, "No wiretap applications were reported as denied in 2015."
And while the number of wiretaps that courts approve has steadily risen over the past decade, to the point where they've more than doubled from 1,774 in 2005 to 4,148 in 2015, wiretapping has become a more cost-effective process.
Of note is that despite FBI director James Comey's repeated insistence of an endemic of terrorists and other criminals "going dark"—using chat programs that use end-to-end encryption, like iMessage or WhatsApp, making it impossible to easily understand a wiretapped message—only six federal wiretaps were reported encrypted in 2015, and two of those were successfully decrypted. It's rare at the state level, too: 22 instances of intercepted information being encrypted were reported in 2014, but only seven in 2015.
NSA former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden ponders as he participates via video link from Russia to a parliamentary hearing on the subject of 'Improving the protection of whistleblowers' on June 23, 2015, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, northeastern France. Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia, is being sought by Washington which has branded him a hacker and a traitor who endangered lives by revealing the extent of the NSA spying program. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 8: The former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and leaker Edward Snowden's bust on display as a 'special guest project' in an annual collaborative exhibition called SEVEN at The Boiler, a Brooklyn art gallery, in New York on May 8, 2015. The bust was illegally installed in Brooklyns Fort Greene Park last month. (Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 06: Half ripped of flyer with a portrait of Edward Snowden and the request to grant him asylum on August 06, 2014, in Berlin, Germany. Edward Snowden came to international attention after disclosing to several media outlets thousands of classified documents that he acquired while working as an NSA contractor for Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)***Local Caption***
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 11: General view of atmosphere at the Edward Snowden Interviewed by Jane Mayer at the MasterCard stage at SVA Theatre during The New Yorker Festival 2014 on October 11, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New Yorker)
DRESDEN, GERMANY - JANUARY 05: A sticker demanding asylum for whistleblower and former NSA worker Edward Snowden hangs stuck to a lamppost on January 5, 2015 in Dresden, Germany. Many Germans favour granting Snowden asylum in Germany following reports that the NSA has conducted extensive eavesrodpping operations in Germany and even listened in on the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden is shown on a livestream from Moscow during the Right Livelihood Award ceremony at the Swedish Parliament, in Stockholm, on December 1, 2014. Snowden was awarded the Right Livelihood Honorary Award 'for his courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights. The Right Livelihood Award was founded by journalist and professional philatelist Jakob von Uexkull in 1980. AFP PHOTO / TT NEWS AGENCY / Pontus Lundahl / SWEDEN OUT (Photo credit should read PONTUS LUNDAHL/AFP/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - DECEMBER 14: Former German Interior Minister Gerhard Baum speaks as former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen on a video conference screen during an award ceremony for the Carl von Ossietzky journalism prize on December 14, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Filmmaker Laura Poitras, Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald (the latter two in absentia) were awarded the prize by the International League for Human Rights for having 'put their personal freedom on the line to expose abuse of power' by Germany and the United States in their revelations of the extent of government surveillance on ordinary citizens in the name of 'national security' in the wake of terrorist attacks. The prize is named for journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ossietzky, who died from complications from being held as a dissident in a Nazi concentration camp. A bid to allow Snowden, who has temporary asylum in Moscow, to testify in Berlin before an NSA parliamentary inquiry is ongoing. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Edward Snowden, Internet Party leader Laila Harre, Robert Amsterdam, Glenn Greenwald and Kim Dotcom discuss the revelations about New Zealand's mass surveillance at Auckland Town Hall on September 15, 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand. The general election in New Zealand will be held this weekend, on 20 September 2014. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 10: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks via videoconference at 'A Virtual Conversation with Edward Snowden' during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)
Activists take part in a demonstration asking Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (L) to grant Edward Snowden political asylum during the Expo Catadores 2013 at the Anhembi Pavilion in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on December 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Miguel SCHINCARIOL (Photo credit should read Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images)