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What is Wiretapping?

Updated on January 22, 2010

Wiretapping is the listening-in on telephone, telegraph or teletype or communications. It is usually accomplished by attaching taps and listening or recording equipment to the communications wires. The term "wiretapping" is sometimes also used to refer to listening-in to any conversations, even those not conducted over communications wires. These procedures are properly called eavesdropping, or in slang usage, bugging, and they employ hidden recording devices, parabolic microphones, or other types of electronic listening devices.

In the United States there are a number of laws regulating wiretapping. The Federal Communications Act of 1934 makes it a crime to divulge, without the consent of the sender, information procured by intercepting messages sent over the lines of an interstate communications carrier. In addition, federal courts refuse to accept wiretap evidence. State regulations vary. In some states the act of intercepting messages without consent of the parties concerned is itself a crime. A few states allow wiretapping or related activities when a state judge has issued a warrant authorizing them. In New York, for example, a warrant can be obtained if the judge thinks there is a probability that evidence of a crime will be obtained through the wiretapping. Some other states do not prohibit wiretap evidence in court, even if the tap was not authorized.

Wiretapping has been the subject of a great deal of debate. Opponents have argued that the right to privacy is implicitly guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlaws unreasonable search and seizure of individuals, their homes, papers, and effects. Those who favor wiretapping reply that in Olmstead v. United States (1928), the U.S. Supreme Court held that wiretapping is not a search and seizure in the traditional sense and is permissible under the Constitution. Some law enforcement officers hold that wiretapping is justified because it can provide evidence of serious crimes, such as treason, kid napping, or organized vice. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed electronic eavesdropping unless authorized by court order. The U.S. Crime Control Act of 1968 made it lawful to employ court-authorized wire taps and hidden microphones for 30-day periods, with renewals at the discretion of the court. It was provided, however, that persons whose conversations were monitored must later be informed of the fact by the authorities.

Photo by Tomasz Piskorski
Photo by Tomasz Piskorski


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      me me 6 years ago

      good paragraph