Cons of Wiretapping

By Tom Lutzenberger
An old form of wiretapping involved placing an electronic bug in a phone receiver.
Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Wiretapping enables both private parties and government agencies to monitor the communications of targeted people to determine if they are doing something wrong. On the private side, this activity commonly occurs in the workplace as employers check to make sure people are working as paid. In government, wiretapping is most common in criminal investigations. However, while it can produce significant information, wiretapping can also produce problems, sometimes making the whole effort a waste of time.

Lack of Authorization

Private party wiretapping can frequently occur when an employer or property owner thinks it has a right to monitor its own equipment. This situation is commonplace with employers and their computer networks or phone systems. However, employers can only monitor so much activity before they cross the line into state and federal felony wiretapping violations. Because laws vary from state to state, the employer or property owner needs to consult an attorney in its home state before initiating any concealed monitoring.

Unintended Consequences

Wiretapping efforts need to be focused on a specific target that an investigation is authorized to pursue. Due to the nature of how communications work in the modern world, multiple communications can travel through the same monitoring point. This means that traffic gets unintentionally monitored when the parties are not the subject of the investigation. In such instances, the party performing the wiretapping and the investigation can be compromised legally. Investigating agencies have to take extra care not to allow such mistakes to occur.

Technical and Ethical Problems

As new technologies make it easier to communicate, the government wants to be able to access such traffic to wiretap it. Voice over Internet Protocol is one such example. Unlike a phone land line that can be isolated, VoIP traffic runs through data streams. It is technically very difficult for an Internet provider on short notice to be able to isolate a particular conversation without also quarantining a customer's Internet account and its entire activity. While this might not be a problem from the perspective of a government investigator because it might add more evidence to the case, it places the service provider in the position of not only having to engineer the solution on the fly but also being the government's listening agent for free.

Algorithmic False Positives

Law enforcement agencies use algorithms in computer programs to weed through the data watched. When the "filter" catches the right set of criteria it raises a flag that something should be looked at. However, if the program has false positives, such filtering can trigger mistaken investigations and police actions. Such a situation can easily occur, for example, when a criminal uses someone's open and unrestricted Wi-Fi signal to conduct criminal business over the Internet. Wi-Fi connections should be password-protected to prevent unauthorized use by others.

About the Author

Since 2009 Tom Lutzenberger has written for various websites, covering topics ranging from finance to automotive history. Lutzenberger works in public finance and policy and consults on a variety of analytical services. His education includes a Bachelor of Arts in English and political science from Saint Mary's College and a Master of Business Administration in finance and marketing from California State University, Sacramento.