usually means the interception of telephone conversations by a listening device connected
to the telephone wire or placed nearby. The message may be heard live, or it may be
recorded or transmitted to another location.
Wiretapping is sometimes used as part of an investigative procedure called audio
surveillance. The term wiretapping sometimes refers to the use of any electrical or
electronic device to eavesdrop on private conversations. However, the interception of
nontelephone conversations is usually called bugging or electronic eavesdropping.
Sophisticated methods and devices permit eavesdropping in almost any situation. Some types
of microphones may be attached to a wall or a door so that conversations can be overheard
through the partition. Directional microphones may be beamed or focused to pick up
conversations from long distances. Even greater distances can be overcome by concealed
miniature microphones and transmitters that send messages to a radio receiver.
In most countries, the right of people to speak freely in their homes and businesses and
in public places--without fear of eavesdroppers--is considered extremely important. Many
nations, states, and provinces have passed laws restricting or prohibiting various types
of electronic surveillance. But much illegal eavesdropping continues, both by individuals
and by governments.
In the United States, the problem of wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping has become a
confusing and controversial legal issue. There is much disagreement about (1) the
constitutionality of electronic surveillance by law enforcement agencies and (2) methods
of controlling government eavesdropping if it is permitted. However, many Americans oppose
wiretapping and bugging by either governments or private individuals.
The wiretapping controversy began in 1928, when the Supreme Court of the United States
ruled that wiretapping did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. This
amendment sets forth restrictions on search and seizure.
In 1934, Congress passed the Federal Communications Act, which prohibits the interception
and public disclosure of any wire or radio communication. On the basis of this law, the
Supreme Court ruled in 1937 that evidence obtained by wiretapping cannot be used in a
federal court. Following this ruling, federal officials argued that the 1934 law did not
prohibit wiretapping by the government so long as the evidence was not used in court.
Since 1940, U.S. Presidents have claimed constitutional power to order wiretaps in matters
of national security.
In 1968, Congress passed a law permitting federal, state, and local government agencies to
use wiretapping and bugging devices in certain crime investigations. Before undertaking
such surveillance, an agency would have to obtain a court order. The law stated that
nothing in it was intended to limit the President's constitutional authority to order
wiretapping without court warrants in national security cases.
In the late 1960's and early 1970's, the executive branch broadly interpreted the national
security provisions of the 1968 law. It conducted electronic surveillance without court
approval on a number of domestic radicals it considered subversive. In 1972, the Supreme
Court ruled that such surveillance without a court warrant was unconstitutional. Also in
1972, wiretapping of the Democratic Party's national headquarters became a main issue in
the Watergate Scandal. Members of a committee working for the reelection of President
Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, were involved in this wiretapping.
Contributor: George T. Felkenes, Dr.Crim., Prof. of Criminal
Justice and Chair, Program in Politics and Policy, Claremont Graduate School.