How does Wiretapping Work?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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Wiretapping is a process whereby a third party listens in on a conversation between two people, for the purpose of spying. In the United States, wiretapping is a breach of privacy and illegal unless the wiretapper is a warrant-carrying member of law enforcement. The terminology originates from the old days, when eavesdroppers actually siphoned electric current from a phone line and processed it into speech patterns. Nowadays, there are a variety of other methods to get the job done. If you happen to work for the CIA or another authorized law enforcement agency, a court-ordered warrant is all you need to ask the relevant telephone company to send you recordings of calls to or from a particular phone number.


Illegal wiretapping requires directly tapping into the relevant line using an induction coil to pick up the signal, or planting a covert recording device or “bug” to monitor the target. Because it is extremely difficult to single out a specific caller when the phone line starts merging with lines of other callers, the line must be tapped into close to the house or apartment of the person to be monitored. A good induction coil can be placed next to a line and measure the signal without perturbing it whatsoever. Less skilled attempts to tap the line result in obvious cracking or popping noises as a result of electromagnetic interference reaching the line. The downside of this approach is that it also requires an external recorder, such as a tape recorder, which can be big, noisy, and power-hungry.

Electronic bugs are perhaps the most effective way of wiretapping, and can use power directly from the phone line to transmit a radio signal to a distance of several kilometers. Improvements in miniaturization technology allow bugs to be very small and efficient. To avoid wiretapping attempts almost entirely, one can simply use voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP) technology, which sends voice files as a series of packets over the Internet. Intercepting this type of communications requires an entirely different type of expertise than conventional wiretapping.

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to perform wiretapping on thousands of United States citizens suspected of communicating with terrorists overseas, without a warrant. This led to all sorts of political trouble, with many legal experts claiming the President broke the law and violated the Constitution, an allegation the administration denies. In any case, Bush’s wiretapping probably contributed to the drop of his public approval rating to record lows.


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Post 3

@pleonasm - Honestly, when you think about the amount of work the government would have to do to keep tabs on even a handful of citizens, I think you have nothing to worry about.

I think they kicked up a big fuss over library books and wiretapping to put a bit of fear into people and make them think the government was really working to keep them safe.

Which is not to say that people shouldn't take that sort of thing seriously, because it is a serious breach of privacy.

But at the moment I honestly think most people are safe from wiretapping.

Post 2

@pastanaga - It's difficult to know for sure though, isn't it? And how do they decide who to put the listening device on?

I mean, they were talking at one point about getting libraries to release the records of what books people take out. If you are the kind of person who likes looking at airplanes and they decide that's suspicious it might be worth their time to put a wiretap on you.

And of course there is technology that can identify words. They wouldn't have to monitor any but the most suspicious cases.

In fact, while I was in the States one of my friends from New Zealand thought it was hilarious to call me up and say things that he thought could be monitored for.

Considering I have an Arabic last name it made me very nervous whenever he did that.

Wiretapping law is basically being ignored, in my opinion, and who knows who is being spied upon.

Post 1

There are conspiracy theorists who believe that every single line in the USA, or even the world, is wiretapped.

Aside from the extraordinary amount of work that would involve, I wonder how they would manage to tap in to cell phones as well.

I mean if you have every single person in the world wiretapped you'd need every single person in the world working for you to sort through the conversations, wouldn't you?

I suppose they could have some kind of technology which managed to sort out the important conversations, but even then it would be ridiculous, and all you'd have to do to thwart it is speak in code anyway.

I believe they are probably doing illegal surveillance including wiretapping but I don't think they have every single phone bugged.

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