So what if the FBI taps the wrong phone?

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The FBI has admitted that occasionally they tap the wrong phone:
The 38,514 untranslated hours included an undetermined number from what the FBI called "collections of materials from the wrong sources due to technical problems."

Spokesman Ed Cogswell said that language describes instances in which the tap was placed on a telephone number other than the one authorized by a court.

"That's mainly an instance in which the telephone company hooked us up to the wrong number or a clerical error here gives us the wrong number," Cogswell said.

...

"What do you mean you are intercepting the wrong subject? How often does it occur? How long does it go on for?" said James Dempsey (search), executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

David Sobel (search), general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said technological advances have made it harder, not easier, to "conduct wiretapping in a surgical way" because digital communications often carry many conversations. "It's not like the old days when there was one dedicated line between me and you," Sobel said.

The FBI has acknowledged errors in the past. An FBI memo from 2000, made public two years later, described similar problems in the use of warrants issued by a court that operates in secret under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In 2002, an FBI official said the bureau averaged 10 mistakes a year in such cases.

...

The FBI is not supposed to use material it collects either by mistake or from people who happen to use phones that are tapped legitimately, but that requirement doesn't satisfy some lawmakers.

"They have recorded the information, but they're saying, 'Trust us, we won't listen to what we recorded,"' said Rep. Bobby Scott (search), D-Va. "People ought to be concerned."

The only thing that's surprising here is that anyone would be surprised that the FBI occasionally intercepts the wrong phone call. Think about how often you misdial a phone number that's right in front of you. Why would you expect the FBI not to make mistakes when they key in the number to intercept?

As for Rep. Scott's point that we have to trust the FBI, that's certainly true, but then we have to trust them not to forge warrants they give to the phone company, not to use scanners to listen to cell calls, not to break into your house and plant bugs without a warrant, etc. Now, you may not think that the FBI is trustworthy enough not to do these things (I'm not sure I do) but why should you be particularly concerned about them not listening to some surveillance of some number which is most likely owned by some entirely different person than the one they're trying to target? I'm much more concerned about the FBI intentionally targetting people they vaguely suspect but don't have enough evidence to get a warrant for than I am about them accidentally tapping people who happen to have similar phone numbers to people they do have warrants for.

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1 Comments

I'm REALLY interested in the paragraph preceding where you start. What is the status of these hours? It sounds like the FBI is maintaining the collection.

THAT violates the constitution a couple of ways. Misrecorded information must be destroyed quickly.

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