A recent report from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts indicated an interesting trend worth noting. The number of warrants requested by law enforcement agencies to wiretap phones is declining. Last year, only 2,732 instances of official eavesdropping on U.S. citizens were documented. That's down 14 percent from the previous year.
Possible reasons for such a decline could be that criminal activity itself is going down, or that law enforcement officials are being more judicious regarding blatant violations of Americans' privacy.
If either were the case, there might be cause for celebration.
But don't break out the party favors just yet.
As it turns out, the actual reason is a shift to cellphone surveillance. Cellphone carriers dealt with more than 1.3 million requests for individuals' records in 2011 alone. The requests, frequently pursued without a warrant, range from text messages, call details, customer locations and even cell tower dumps of all customers in a particular location.
For those fighting crime and terrorism threats, the proliferation of cellphones has been a blessing.
"At every crime scene, there's some type of mobile device," said Peter Modafferi, a New York detective who also works with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Modafferi told the New York Times "it's absolutely vital" to exploit the new technology.
Of course, not everybody sees it in the same light.
Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union said: "The danger is that the standard is very unclear."
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., was more to the point.
"There's a real danger we've already crossed the line," Markey said about compromising customer privacy. "We don't know the standard that is used for the gathering, handling or disposal of information about innocent Americans. We need a Fourth Amendment for the 21st century. Technologies change."
Congressional attempts to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was enacted in 1986, have never made it out of committee. The bills had bipartisan support, but apparently have succumbed to gridlock in the nation's capital.
Meanwhile, wireless carriers have had to ramp up staff merely to handle the volume of law enforcement requests. Most of their work gets reimbursed by the government, but certainly not all.
We can't blame law enforcement officials for taking advantage of the situation. We're confident the electronic records are helping solve crimes. And as long as they're acting within current legal restrictions, they should continue doing so.
But legislators are neglecting their duty to protect the citizens as the Constitution requires. Both warrantless and unreasonable searches are prohibited. It's time for Congress to re-establish privacy rights in the digital age.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry