Wiretaps harvest fewer encrypted communications

Wiretaps harvest fewer encrypted communications
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Law enforcement officials increased their use of wiretaps by 17 percent last year but were rarely thwarted by encryption, a new report says. 

Of more than 4,000 total warrants in 2015 from local and federal agencies, law enforcement agencies encountered encryption a mere 13 times. Local agencies alone were thwarted 22 times in 2014.


The yearly U.S. Courts report to Congress on wiretaps covers warrants in 2015 for communications as they move from one device to another. It does not include warrants for law enforcement to mine data from devices.

Civil liberties advocates seized on the report, saying it undermines arguments that criminals are evading law enforcement through encrypted technology. 

A representative for the FBI said law enforcement officials do not seek wiretaps in cases where it knows communications are encrypted.

Wiretaps are not the only place that law enforcement might come across encryption. The San Bernardino, Calif., terrorism case that pitted Apple against the FBI was for encrypted data stored on a phone, not the data in transit covered by a wiretap.  

The report also notes that no requests for wiretaps were denied by the courts in 2015, which is in keeping with recent history. For at least the last 11 years, no year has seen more than two requests denied.