Wiretapping has historically referred to the interception of a telephone line to eavesdrop on a telephone conversation. As technology has evolved, wiretapping now refers to any type of eavesdropping, whether it involves land line telephones, cellular telephones or voice-over Internet calls. Wiretapping is subject to laws protecting individual privacy and can usually only be carried out by law enforcement personnel after receiving permission from a judge. Wiretaps present both advantages and disadvantages when used for police investigations.
Evidence Gathering Advantage
Many crimes are committed solely through telephone contact. For example, if you are accused of solicitation for prostitution or drugs, the police would have no evidence against you without the existence of a telephone recording of the conversation in which you solicited the prostitute or the drugs. That is because the solicitation may not take place on the street. Therefore, you would have never made direct contact with a drug dealer or a human trafficker. The only way to implicate you, the person who solicits, is through wiretapping. As a result, wiretapping is crucial in providing evidence for certain categories of crimes.
Drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime are dangerous environments in which to conduct law enforcement. By permitting the use of wiretapping, law enforcement officers can gather much of the evidence without being in direct contact with the perpetrators and, many times, without the perpetrators' knowledge that they are under surveillance. This reduces the risk of harm to police officers.
Poor Quality of Information
When police conduct wiretaps, they often tap into conversations that have nothing to do with the illegal activity under investigation. The broad scope of a wiretap operation can result in false leads, unrelated information and evidence that is not useful for the investigation.
Violation of Right to Privacy
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the individual's right to privacy. Wiretaps violate privacy when they are too broad or when they are done without a warrant issued by a judge. In some cases, police investigations exceed the boundaries of the Constitution and infringe on the rights of individuals to privacy in their telephone communications.