In recent weeks, it has seemed as if privacy protections are under siege in modern America. For starters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police can, in some cases, collect DNA evidence even from people who have not been arrested. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been struggling to articulate the rationale for the sweeping surveillance program that involves accessing the phone records of millions of Americans.

And on yet another front for threats to privacy, law enforcement authorities continue to expand the use of wiretaps beyond their original purpose, which was primarily to be used as a tool to fight organized crime. In short, in the St. Louis area and across the country, privacy protections are threatened in a host of ways.

In an age of wireless communication devices, wiretapping is in some ways an anachronistic term. But it no longer necessarily means tapping into the wire of a landline. It refers, rather, to listening in by law enforcement on a private citizen’s private phone conversations.

When Congress first authorized wiretaps in 1968, the types of crimes it was targeting were definitely not white-collar crimes. The concern was above all with organized crime, as well as gang activity and drug trafficking.

And the underlying assumption was that wiretaps would be used only as last resort by law enforcement.

In recent years, however, federal authorities in some parts of the country have increasingly used wiretaps to investigate white-collar crime. A key case was the so-called Galleon case, involving a hedge fund and charges of insider trading. In part 2 of this post, we will discuss how the use of wiretaps in such cases is at odds with historic privacy protections.

Source: Forbes, “Once Reserved For Drug Crimes, Wiretapping Takes Center Stage in White Collar Prosecutions,” Jordan Maglich, May 21, 2013