Every Phone in America
The first step is to ask why, if phone taps are as useful as law enforcement spokesmen claim, there are so few of them and they produce so few convictions. …
The answer is not the reluctance of courts to authorize wiretaps. The National Security Agency, after all, gets its wiretaps authorized by a special court, widely reported to have never turned down a request. The answer is that wiretaps are very expensive. …
That problem has been solved. Software to convert speech into text is now widely available on the market. Using such software, you can have a computer listen, convert the speech to text, search the text for key words and phrases, and notify a human being if it gets a hit. Current commercial software is not very reliable unless it has first been trained by the user to his voice. But an error level that would be intolerable for using a computer to take dictation is more than adequate to pick up key words in a conversation. And the software is getting better.
Computers work cheap. If we assume that the average American spends half an hour a day on the phone–a number created out of thin air by averaging in two hours for teenagers and ten minutes for everyone else–that gives, on average, about six million phone conversations at any one time. Taking advantage of the wonders of mass production, it should be possible to produce enough dedicated computers to handle all of that for less than a billion dollars.
Every phone in America.
Law enforcement agencies still have to get court orders for all of those wiretaps–and however friendly the courts may be, persuading judges that every phone in the country needs to be tapped, including theirs, might be a problem.
Or perhaps not. A computer wiretap is not really an invasion of privacy–nobody is listening. Why should it require a search warrant? If I were an attorney for the FBI, facing a friendly judiciary, I would argue that a computerized tap is at most equivalent to a pen register, which keeps track of who calls whom and does not currently require a warrant. The tap only rises to the level of a search when a human being listens to the recorded conversation. Before doing so, the human being will, of course, go to a judge, offer the judge the computer's report on key words and phrases detected, and use that evidence to obtain a warrant. Thus law enforcement will be free to tap all our phones without recourse to the court system–until, of course, it finds evidence that we are doing something wrong. If we are doing nothing wrong, only a computer will hear our words–so why worry? What do we have to hide?