Feds' use of surveillance devices rises sharply

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WASHINGTON (AP) – The Justice Department’s use of electronic devices to intercept phone numbers, email addresses and online information has climbed by 64 percent since 2009, according to a study of records released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Government data shows that from 2009 to 2011, the combined number of court orders for so-called pen registers and trap and trace devices on phones rose from 23,535 in 2009 to 37,616 in 2011, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Though used far less frequently, the combined number of court orders targeting individuals’ email and network communications data rose from 360 in 2009 to 1,661 through the end of 2011. When combined, the total intercepts represent a 64 percent increase.

The civil liberties advocacy group made the FOIA request, analyzed the released documents and issued a report on them Thursday.

A pen register records all numbers dialed from a particular telephone line. A trap-and-trace device records the telephone numbers of inbound callers to a suspected criminal telephone.

The Justice Department says civil liberties are safeguarded by obtaining court approval to use such surveillance.

The devices are not used to capture phone conversations or the content of emails.

“In every instance cited here, a federal judge authorized the law enforcement activity,” Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said. “As criminals increasingly use new and more sophisticated technologies, the use of orders issued by a judge and explicitly authorized by Congress to obtain non-content information is essential for federal law enforcement officials to carry out their duty to protect the public and investigate violations of federal laws.”

The standard for obtaining a court order for such surveillance requires that the information sought is relevant to an investigation. That standard is far less than the law requires to obtain a warrant to conduct a physical search: probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.

An ACLU staff attorney, Catherine Crump, said the process for these less intrusive warrants is a “rubber stamp” devoid of any kind of meaningful court review.

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