Accountability for electronic surveillance by government agencies

09Dec09

From slight paranoia. Only happens in the US, of course – I mean the public reporting of real-time wiretaps by law enforcement agencies.

If you were to believe the public surveillance statistics, you might come away with the idea that government surveillance is exceedingly rare in the United States.

Every year, the US Courts produce the wiretap report which details every ‘intercept’ order requested by Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies during that year. Before the police, FBI, DEA or other law enforcement agents can tap a phone, intercept an Internet connection, or place a covert bug into a suspect’s home, they must obtain one of these orders, which law professor and blogger Orin Kerr describes as a “super warrant,” due to the number of steps the government must go through in order to obtain one.
……….
However, while there are many ways the government can monitor an individual, very few of these methods require an intercept order.

In general, intercept orders are required to monitor the contents of real time communications. Non-content information, such as the To/From and Subject lines for email messages, URLs of pages viewed (which includes search terms), and telephone numbers dialed can all be obtained with a pen register/trap & trace order.

While wiretaps require a “superwarrant” which must be evaluated and approved by a judge following strict rules, government attorneys can obtain pen register orders by merely certifying that the information likely to be obtained is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation — a far lower evidentiary threshold.
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The reporting requirements for intercepts and pen registers only apply to the surveillance of live communications. However, communications or customer records that are in storage by third parties, such as email messages, photos or other files maintained in the cloud by services like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo Facebook and MySpace are routinely disclosed to law enforcement, and there is no legal requirement that statistics on these kinds of requests be compiled or published.

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