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Last year, federal and state judges authorized 3,168 wiretaps “permitting wire, oral, or electronic surveillance,” according to a report from the federal courts system. That may not seem like such a big number — after all, there are more than 300 million people in this country, so one wiretap per every 1,000 people or so isn’t bad, right?


It seems reasonable until you find out what a single wiretap order can entail. The single largest federal order in 2016, the report notes, “occurred during a narcotics investigation in the Middle District of Pennsylvania and resulted in the interception of 3,292,385 cell phone conversations or messages over 60 days.”

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So for two months, federal law enforcement listened to millions of Pennsylvanians’ phone calls in an incredibly invasive effort to prosecute the ineffective, expensive, inhumane, failure that is our war on drugs. Even if we allowed that fighting the drug war is a good idea (it’s not), there’s no way this didn’t infringe on the privacy of innocents.

But it gets worse! As the International Business Times reports, all that spying from this absurd sprawl of a wiretap has yet to produce a conviction:

The order was signed to help the authorities track 26 individuals suspected of illegal drug trafficking and narcotics-related activities in Pennsylvania. However, the investigation cost $335,000 to the taxpayer and led only to a dozen arrests. The surveillance effort neither captured any intercepts nor did it bring anyone to trial or convicted. Other details about the wiretapping are not available since the court records have been sealed.

Needless to say, this debacle has raised concerns among privacy advocates.

The feds “spent a fortune tracking 26 people and recording three million conversations and apparently got nothing,” Albert Gidari, a privacy expert at Stanford Law School, told ZDNet. “I’m not surprised by the results,” he added, “because on average, a very very low percentage of conversations are incriminating, and a very very low percent results in conviction.”

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To be clear, this wiretap (and the other 3,167 like it) isn’t in the same category as the sort of illegal, warrantless mass surveillance Edward Snowden exposed. But that doesn’t mean this is okay.

Following due process is necessary for fair, accountable, and constitutional law enforcement, but it is hardly alone sufficient. (For example, how can an order this huge can possibly fit the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement?)

As Snowden himself has put it, “we should always make a distinction that right and wrong is a very different standard than legal and illegal.”

Our government spied on 3.3 million phone calls with a single wiretap order — and got zero convictions Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Rare, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can find more of her work at www.bonniekristian.com or follow her on Twitter @bonniekristian
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