TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Big Brother Isn't Here Yet

Big Brother Isn't Here Yet

Eric Friedebach (
6 May 2005 13:22:22 -0700

Arik Hesseldahl, 05.06.05,

NEW YORK - There's an old saying that goes, "Gentlemen don't read
other gentlemen's mail."

It's attributed to President Herbert Hoover's Secretary of State Henry
L. Stimson, who in 1929 shut down the office in the U.S. State
Department responsible for breaking codes to read messages sent
between embassies of other countries and their capitals.

It didn't take long for the government to realize that eavesdropping
on the communications of other countries and even its own citizens is
a necessary evil in a dangerous world.

Government surveillance is a sensitive topic, fraught with a good deal
of paranoia and a lot of misunderstanding. I was reminded of this when
someone with whom I trade e-mail sent an article noting that the
number of court-ordered phone wiretaps is on the rise.

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts tracks statistics on wiretaps
ordered by judges at the state and federal levels on an annual basis
in order to report them to Congress. The headline on most stories
detailing the report was that the overall number of wiretaps was up
19%. The friend who sent the story used this in part to bolster her
side of a long-simmering discussion about how the U.S. is morphing
into Oceania, the surveillance-obsessed nation described in George
Orwell's 1984.

"Hogwash," I said, and promptly tore into the numbers. Federal and
state judges approved 1,710 wiretaps covering wire, oral and
electronic communications in 2004, none of which were related to
terrorism investigations, for which an additional 1,754 warrants were
issued last year according to a separate report put out by the
U.S. Department of Justice. So last year's grand total was 3,464
wiretaps approved for all state and federal investigations.

That works out to less than one tapped phone line for every 100,000
people in the U.S. Compared to other countries, the U.S. is
significantly more conservative in ordering wiretaps for criminal

Eric Friedebach
/An Apollo Sandwich from Corky & Lenny's/

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