Government surveillance is big news lately, with revelations about the NSA collecting information online, and a number of federal and local law enforcement agencies using StingRays to collect cellphone information over wide areas. Even the IRS has gotten on board with StingRays.
With the focus on the new kinds of surveillance, it's easy to forget that the government has had other types of surveillance for decades. In fact, the humble wiretap is back in the news thanks to some startling news out of Southern California.
The county of Riverside is under fire from federal officials for its excessive use of wiretaps without proper authorization. In a normal situation, a wiretap has to be approved by a high-level prosecutor. In the case of a county, that's the district attorney.
However, the DA for Riverside decided he had better things to do and turned the approval of wiretaps over to assistants. Thanks to those assistants, one in every five wiretaps authorized in the U.S. last year was in Riverside. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency allegedly took advantage of the lax policies to get a lot of wiretaps for operations around the country.
In all, at least 738 wiretaps were approved in Riverside since 2013, and those wiretaps picked up the calls and texts of more than 52,000 people. They were also used in more than 300 arrests, but now there's question about whether that evidence can be used in court.
Because wiretap requests are secret, prosecutors are still unraveling how bad this situation is. It also raises the question of how wiretaps are being approved in other counties. Expect more on this story in the coming months.