Big Brother Isn't Here Yet

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 investigations.

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

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