We often see it being done in movies and in television series for different purposes. We also find it interesting to see mysteries unfold and the truth is known because of this procedure. We always hear the words bug and phone tapped in crime and suspense movies and TV shows. We witness murderers, kidnappers, and their accomplices nabbed by the police because of information gathered through wiretapping. They say the movies and TV shows are reflections of modern society and the existing trends. For the most part, it is true because aside from imagination and creativity, writers get their ideas from what they see and experience around them. This can also be said of authors of books or novels. Wiretapping has always been a technique of surveillance used in crime and suspense novels, and even in romance novels dealing with infidelity.
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In reality, wiretapping or also referred to as electronic surveillance has been instrumental to countless breakthroughs in legal cases and numerous arrests in criminal proceedings. It has been lauded by some sectors, but it has also received negative criticisms and complaints from various groups. Victims of crimes and their relatives and friends of course favor wiretapping as an added means to capture the perpetrators. People who are at the receiving end or who are targets of surveillance consider wiretapping as an invasion of their privacy. Groups against wiretapping rely on the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment to support their stand. The Fourth Amendment pertains to “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized” (Amendments to the Constitution).
Arguments have been raised regarding the direct relation of the Fourth Amendment under the U.S. Bill of Rights to wiretapping. Since the Amendment is not clear as to the validity or invalidity of wiretapping in connection with the allowable reasons or purposes for the activity, several federal laws or acts were passed to classify and clarify its legality. Some of the federal Acts include The Wire and Electronic Communications Interception and Interception of Oral Communications Act where a judge issues a court order after concluding that a probable cause exists for committing a crime, The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act where wiretapping of aliens or U.S. citizens are allowed provided there is probable cause that they are involved in criminal activities, The Electronic Communications Privacy Act concerning measures regulating access to email, cellular phones, and other electronic communications devices, and The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act where telephone companies are required to design their telephone systems in such a way that government may have wiretapping access for law enforcement purposes (Electronic Surveillance Laws).
All the Acts require the presence of a probable cause that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed. Otherwise, wiretapping without proof of this probable cause is considered illegal. Issues on wiretapping have largely been limited to law enforcement and government surveillance for the national interest. Wiretapping by private citizens for personal reasons or purposes is considered an invasion of privacy and thus, is punishable by law. Issues of Wiretapping within companies, involving employees and wiretapping related to industry competition comprise another aspect of the legalities of wiretapping.
Wiretapping is a form of electronic surveillance, often called electronic eavesdropping where telephonic and telegraphic communications are covertly monitored by connecting devices to the transmission lines (Wiretapping).
Electronic Surveillance involves the stealthy gathering of information by listening or observing persons or activities through the use of electronic gadgets or devices like tape recorders, cameras, and wiretaps. In law enforcement, surveillance is used to gather information for use as evidence or proof in criminal cases. Surveillance is used by corporations for security purposes and to gain an advantage over their competitors by gathering competitive data (Electronic Surveillance). Private individuals and companies may engage in electronic surveillance, provided the methods are legal. While pictures as evidence may be admissible in court for private cases, wiretapping by private individuals is prohibited by law. Wiretapping may be admitted as proof in a court proceeding if done with probable cause and a search warrant or court order.
Wiretapping has been stringently regulated by the U.S. Government to prevent possible cases of abuse and infringement of privacy laws. It was greatly criticized and Acts and petitions were filed to counter the laws favoring lawful wiretapping. The tides changed, however, after the September 11 terror attacks. People became more open to methods and strategies in identifying terrorists and stopping them from executing their terror plans. The U.S. Congress passed the Patriot Act Bill in October 2001, which made the authority of the police more extensive in surveillance efforts including wiretapping of conversations and inspection of computers and electronic mail (Gjelten). Some groups expressed worry about the possible misuse and abuse of the Act, but the overwhelming concern for tracking down and thwarting the plans of terrorists overshadowed these concerns.
Uses and Techniques of Wiretapping
The primary significant usage of wiretapping is the gathering of information to stop a crime from happening or to solve a crime that has already happened. It is used by law enforcement agencies to plan their operations, to pursue a lead, or to establish evidence which they need to present in court. Wiretapping has been used as a supplement and complement to actual physical police operations. Cases are strengthened or other leads are generated through the use of wiretapping. In kidnapping cases, victims are rescued because of information gathered through wiretapping of phone lines used by the suspects. Conspiracies are discovered and thwarted because of this method. The use of wiretapping became widespread as a result of terror attacks. Potential terrorists or those with an inclination towards terrorism are wiretapped to monitor their actions and intercept conversations. After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Government has strengthened its efforts against terrorism and has formulated strategies to track down terrorists living in the United States.
In the corporate world, wiretapping is used extensively to spy on the competition. Industrial espionage is when companies spy on industry competitors to gather information on their business strategies or plans and other data which can be used as leverage against the other companies (Harris). This practice may result in lawsuits, although this outcome seldom occurs because almost all companies do espionage. It is avoided and abhorred but nevertheless accepted. Another kind of surveillance that involves wiretapping is the monitoring of employees. The legality of this practice is actually questionable but companies have a way to go around the privacy law. Companies contend that they have to protect the company’s interests and security. They also have a duty to monitor the employee’s performance for training and evaluation purposes. Thus, when new hires accept the terms of employment upon entering the organization, they are agreeing to this monitoring. Most companies have ways to check and scrutinize telephone conversations and internet correspondence using office equipment. Company rules often state that employees may be monitored by the company for as long as they are within the office premises and they are using office equipment. Those employees holding confidential positions or those whose tasks involve company secrets or confidential documents are more likely to be closely monitored. These company rules on wiretapping as a means of employee monitoring do not go beyond the bounds of the office. If the employee is at home or outside the company premises, wiretapping of any conversation or correspondence is illegal.
In domestic matters, wiretapping is a very popular request among married couples. Both men and women suspecting their spouses of infidelity or adultery almost always go to agencies offering investigation services and ask that their spouses be wiretapped. This request is actually for validation of their suspicions. Spouses also think that this will be helpful in their ongoing divorce or child custody proceedings. Investigation agencies offer alternative means of surveillance because they are aware that wiretapping is illegal and may land them in jail. Furthermore, information gathered through illegal wiretapping is definitely not admissible in court
Other forms or uses of wiretapping involve politics where political figures implicated or engaged in controversial activities or activities involving government matters are closely monitored. This is defended by citing the national interest as the primary aim of the wiretapping action. Wiretapping, though illegal is rampant in the world of show business. Celebrities often complain that they know that they are being wiretapped but could not find the device or the source. People wanting to run private, controversial and at times damaging stories of showbiz personalities in exchange for money engage in illegal wiretapping. There are also cases of wiretapping in high-stakes legal proceedings where an individual, group, or corporation is to lose or gain ownership, a big amount of money, or a contract. These wiretapping activities are for personal gain and are not protected by law.
Basic techniques in wiretapping include tapping directly into outside lines using a hardwired tap, attaching a tape recorder to a telephone line, installing bugs in the handset, wall socket, or anyplace along the telephone line, using high technology equipment to monitor bugs and wireless communications from a distance (Harris).
The easiest technique is to tap directly into the telephone lines outside the house. The problem with this method, however, is that the person doing the wiretapping needs to be physically beside the tapped line to wait for a call or wait for the person inside the house to pick up the receiver and accept a call. This method is not exactly a covert means of surveillance due to the visibility of the person doing the wiretapping.
Another technique is the use of an ordinary tape recorder or a voice-activated recorder which is hooked up to the telephone line. The recorder picks up the electrical signals from the telephone line and encodes them on audiotape. The use of a bug is the most effective technique as it allows surveillance at a remote location. It is a receiving device for audio information which is transmitted via radio waves. The waves run to a radio transmitter and into a radio receiver which encodes it on tape. There are bugs with microphones that do not only receive sound from the telephone lines but can also pick up sounds within the area where they were planted.
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With the advent of more sophisticated technology like the internet, communication has established a wider scope. Wiretapping has now expanded its horizon to include the internet. Criminals or those intending to commit crimes are avoiding the telephone lines for known wiretapping capabilities of the government. Instead, they use the internet to send messages to their cohorts. The FBI created an internet wiretapping software under the federal wiretap authority initially called Carnivore but was later renamed as DCS1000 (FBI Renames ‘Carnivore’ Internet Wiretap ). The software which is capable of accessing emails, instant messages and websites visited, was used for cases involving crimes and national security. Cellular phones are now also being wiretapped to serve similar purposes cited previously, most of the time in cooperation with the network provider. There are also several instances of illegal wiretapping of cellular phones not authorized by the providers.
Should wiretapping be allowed? I say yes if it is done for legitimate purposes and is for the common good or national security. Of course, it has to be approved by the court first and as the law stipulates, it should be a result of a probable cause that a crime was committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed. Wiretapping is very important in solving crimes and inputting criminals or offenders in jail. It is an essential part of the strategies of government law enforcement agencies like the FBI, CIA, and the police in maintaining peace and order in the country. It is a reliable source of information used to identify terrorists and prevent them from executing their plans. There are privacy laws to guide these agencies and to regulate their usage of wiretapping. There are also groups or agencies which serve as watchdogs or whose purpose is to check if the laws are being honored.
Privacy is a primary right of an individual. It is the one thing that we can actually call our very own. If taken away, what amount of dignity is left? It is but proper for people to be concerned about their privacy rights being trampled upon by the system of wiretapping. It is for this reason that all wiretapping activities should be legal and all illegal forms should be punished by law. Strict law enforcement is the key to discourage or prevent illegal wiretapping activities. Vigilant monitoring of how law enforcement uses wiretapping can also avoid distrust from the people. Procedures, policies, and scope should be clarified and imposed to promote responsible use of the wiretapping method of electronic surveillance.
- “Amendments to the Constitution.” The Library of Congress.
- “Electronic Surveillance.” enotes.com.
- “Electronic Surveillance Laws.” 2005. National Conference of State Legislatures.
- “FBI Renames ‘Carnivore’ Internet Wiretap.” 2001. American Civil Liberties Union. Web.
- Gjelten, Tom. “September 11 Attacks.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [CD]. Redmond: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
- Harris, Tom. “Basic Wiretapping Techniques.” How Stuff Works. Web.
- “How Wiretapping Works.” How Stuff Works. Web.
- “Wiretapping.” enotes.com.