With just one wiretap order, US authorities listened in on 3.3 million phone calls

The order was carried out in 2016 as part of a federal narcotics investigation.

NEW YORK, NY — US authorities intercepted and recorded millions of phone calls last year under a single wiretap order, authorized as part of a narcotics investigation.

The wiretap order authorized an unknown government agency to carry out real-time intercepts of 3.29 million cell phone conversations over a two-month period at some point during 2016, after the order was applied for in late 2015.

The order was signed to help authorities track 26 individuals suspected of involvement with illegal drug and narcotic-related activities in Pennsylvania.

The wiretap cost the authorities $335,000 to conduct and led to a dozen arrests.

But the authorities noted that the surveillance effort led to no incriminating intercepts, and none of the handful of those arrested have been brought to trial or convicted.

The revelation was buried in the US Courts’ annual wiretap report, published earlier this week but largely overlooked.

“The federal wiretap with the most intercepts occurred during a narcotics investigation in the Middle District of Pennsylvania and resulted in the interception of 3,292,385 cell phone conversations or messages over 60 days,” said the report.

Details of the case remain largely unknown, likely in part because the wiretap order and several motions that have been filed in relation to the case are thought to be under seal.

It’s understood to be one of the largest number of calls intercepted by a single wiretap in years, though it’s not known the exact number of Americans whose communications were caught up by the order.

We contacted the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where the wiretap application was filed, but did not hear back.

Albert Gidari, a former privacy lawyer who now serves as director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, criticized the investigation.

“They spent a fortune tracking 26 people and recording three million conversations and apparently got nothing,” said Gidari. “I’d love to see the probable cause affidavit for that one and wonder what the court thought on its 10 day reviews when zip came in.”

“I’m not surprised by the results because on average, a very very low percentage of conversations are incriminating, and a very very low percent results in conviction,” he added.

When reached, a spokesperson for the Justice Department did not comment

Contact me securely

Zack Whittaker can be reached securely on Signal and WhatsApp at 646-755–8849, and his PGP fingerprint for email is: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

If you see something, leak something. Telling the world holds people in office accountable, no matter how big or small it may be.

There are a number of ways to contact me securely, in ranking order.

Encrypted calls and texts

I use both Signal and WhatsApp for end-to-end encrypted calling and messaging. The apps are available for iPhones and Android devices.

You can reach me at +1 646-755–8849 on Signal or WhatsApp.

I will get back to you as soon as possible if I don’t immediately respond.

Encrypted instant messaging

You can also contact me using “Off The Record” messaging, which allows you to talk to me in real time on your computer. It’s easy to use once you get started. This helpful guide will show you how to get set up.

You will need a Jabber instant messaging account. There are many options to choose from. For anonymity, you should create an account through the Tor browser.

You can reach me at: zackwhittaker@jabber.at during working hours.

When you verify my fingerprint, it’s this: 914F503C 03771A5F A9E2AC91 95861FDA 9B3A7EAD.

Send me PGP email

My email address is zack.whittaker@gmail.com (remove the dot for PGP).

PGP, or “Pretty Good Privacy,” is a great (but tricky-to-use) way of emailing someone encrypted files or messages. PGP works on almost every email account and computer, but using it on your work or home email address won’t hide who you are, or the fact that you sent a reporter an email.

If you want to remain anonymous, go somewhere that isn’t your home or work network. Then, you should use the Tor browser, which hides your location, to access a free email service (like this one or this one).

The EFF has a set of easy-to-use tutorials on how to get started.

You will need my public PGP key to email me securely, available here.

You can also verify my PGP fingerprint to be sure it’s me: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

You can also get this information on my Keybase profile.

When all else fails…

You can always send me things through the mail. My work address is:

Zack Whittaker c/o CBS,
28 E. 28th Street,
New York, NY 10016,
United States of America.

(Updated: January 14 with additional Keybase details.)
(Updated: April 30 with new Jabber fingerprint.)

Henry Sapiecha

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