The twentieth century has witnessed a revolution in communications systems and technologies. The telephone, initially a device for a privileged few, became a household item. The benefits to individuals, families, businesses, and government seemed endless. One benefit for the police, as well as for others who had the resources, was a newfound ability to eavesdrop, or wiretap, phone conversations.
The computer age had an equally dramatic impact. Telephone technology itself improved so that microwave transmissions streamlined the old fashioned "wire system." Moreover, the marriage of telephones and computers meant that data could be beamed from terminal to terminal, across the street or to the other side of the world. By the 1980s, reams of sensitive data, including trade secrets, personal health information, and financial data regularly entered the stream of telephone communications and were stored in computers.
The ramifications for privacy are profound. Technology has advanced to the point where virtually any phone conversation or any data transmission can be intercepted. In fact, the National Security Agency, the federal government's most secret body, was created to intercept communications.1
In 1923 the US Supreme Court held that wiretapping did not violate the Fourth Amendment since there was no searching, no seizure of anything tangible, no physical trespass.2 Forty years later, the Court reversed itself, ruling in two cases that the Fourth Amendment protected against warrantless interception of telephone conversations and electronic eavesdropping of oral conversation.3 Congress too recognized the need for statutory privacy protection, albeit a bit later. In 1968 it passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, including Title III,4 which restricted wiretapping. In 1986, recognizing that advances in technology required updating the law, Congress approved and President Reagan signed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).5