A United States wiretapping law timeline

1791: The Fourth Amendment

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

1928: Olmstead versus the United States

Case that gave the government the authority to wiretap without a warrant. The justification for this was that not allowing wiretapping would be a slipper slope and let criminals have immunity because they wouldn’t be able to charge them.

Case text: http://scholar.google.com/ scholar_case?case= 5577544660194763070&hl=en&as_ sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

Breakdown of case: http://www.oyez.org/cases/ 1901-1939/1927/1927_493

How the important of Olmstead could relate to modern times: http://www.npr.org/2011/11/30/ 142714568/interpreting-the- constitution-in-the-digital- era

A part of the dissenting opinion written by Justice Brandeis put on a Mug, just because I think this is kinda cool: http://rlv.zcache.com/crime_ is_contagious_olmstead_v_ united_states_mug- r7b6b306d630c417da26aa1bef32dc 439_x7j50_8byvr_324.jpg

1934: Federal Communications Act

1967: Katz versus the United States

– Charles Katz charged with conducting gambling operations across state lines

– FBI illegally wiretapped a phone booth, claim booth is not “constitutionally protected”

– Court says the Fourth Amendment protects PEOPLE not places. The phone booth was in a public place but Katz sought reasonableprivacy through its use

– Overturns Olmstead vs. US (1928), Olmstead determined warrantless wiretapping didn’t violate the 4th amendment, because it’s not a physical intrusion

The official facts, proceedings, and decision


A case in 2012 (U.S. v Jones) where Katz was cited to make the claim for a “reasonable level of privacy” when the government installed GPS on a woman’s vehicle,


When Katz was decided, it overturned a previous decision in 1927 in Olmstead v. U.S. (1928). Here is a comparison of the cases.



1968: Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act

Here is a link to the page on the US Department of Justice’s website where you can find the entire act: http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/spl/42usc3789d.php

Here’s a link to a website that breaks down what it did:
Here’s a link to the statement made by President Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed it in June of 1968:

1972: Pun Plamondun case

1978: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

Congressional Research Service summary.

from Enemies: A History of the FBI  by Tim Weiner: 

Page 344. Came with the hiring of Webster as Director of the FBI 1978. He was previously a judge and was thus a very law-abiding man, driven by the constitution rather than the president’s orders. He sought to create a legal charter spelling out the Bureau’s expected role, “what people expected of us, not what we couldn’t do, but what they expected us to do”.

He spent two years working on a draft in consultation with Congress, however, neither Carter nor Reagan acted on his draft leaving it a stillborn. FISA was the closest thing Webster got to his legal charter. It created a special court of judges, who were selected by the chief justice. They would meet in a special soundproof chamber on the top floor of the Justice Department. Discussed in these chambers was the topic of approving wiretapping and electronic surveillance requests by American intelligence officers lawfully. FISA approved over 17,000 requests without once saying no. The exception of FISA was that the target had to be an agent of a foreign power.

Online Information: 

1) from the Federal Judicial Center:  http://www.fjc.gov/history/ home.nsf/page/courts_special_ fisc.html

“Congress in 1978 established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as a special court and authorized the Chief Justice of the United States to designate seven federal district court judges to review applications for warrants related to national security investigations…The provisions for the court were part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (92 Stat. 1783), which required the government, before it commenced certain kinds of intelligence gathering operations within the United States, to obtain a judicial warrant similar to that required in criminal investigations.”

2) from the Electronic Privacy Information Center:  http://epic.org/privacy/ terrorism/fisa/#Overview http://epic.org/privacy/ terrorism/fisa/#usa

“As originally passed, any FISA investigation must have had the collection of Foreign Intelligence Information as its sole or “primary purpose.” The USA-PATRIOT Act expanded the application of FISA to those situations where foreign intelligence gathering is merely “a significant” purpose of the investigation.”

“The USA-PATRIOT Act further expanded FISA to permit “roving wiretap” authority, which allows the interception of any communications made to or by an intelligence target without specifying the particular telephone line, computer or other facility to be monitored. Prior law required third parties (such as common carriers and others) “specified in court-ordered surveillance” to provide assistance necessary to accomplish the surveillance–under the new law, that obligation has been extended to unnamed and unspecified third parties.”

3) from NPR:  http://www.npr.org/2013/02/26/ 172998760/supreme-court-makes- it-harder-to-challenge- foreign-intelligence- surveillance-act

Feb. 26, 2013 story-  “A sharply divided Supreme Court has made it practically impossible for American citizens to challenge the constitutionality of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA is the federal law that authorizes large-scale electronic surveillance of phone calls and emails to and from targets abroad and individuals in the United States. By a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the court said that human-rights advocates, journalists and lawyers for detainees could not show with near certainty that they had been or will be harmed by the program and, therefore, they could not challenge the statute in court.”

1986: Electronic Privacy and Communications Act

2001: The Patriot Act


Stellar Wind: What you need to know.

h/t to NPR for this timeline.

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