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Are federal authorities listening to your phone calls?

A funny meme has been making the rounds on social media. In the meme, users make light of a scenario where an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation listens to every phone call or reads every text message a person sends. While memes are often far from reality, this popular one raises an important question: Are federal authorities listening to your phone calls? 

Federal officers may receive approval to surveil electronic communications in two different situations. First, they may seek a warrant to investigate the communications of individuals in the United States whom they suspect have committed a crime. Alternatively, they may obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to monitor the communications of a foreigner. 

Criminal wiretaps 

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. To avoid violating your constitutional rights, investigators generally must obtain a warrant before searching you or your property. To do so, they must convince a judge that they have probable cause to believe you have committed a crime or intend to commit a crime. They must also show that tapping your phone is reasonably likely to uncover evidence of criminal activity. 

FISA warrant taps 

Federal investigators may also seek to surveil communications under FISA. If they go this route, they must convince a judge in a secret court to issue a warrant. Generally, though, federal authorities only pursue FISA warrants for foreign nationals for intelligence reasons. While it is possible federal investigators may obtain a FISA warrant to surveil a U.S. citizen they suspect of espionage, doing so for other criminal reasons is exceedingly rare. 

As you can see, obtaining a warrant to surveil your personal communications requires substantial effort on the part of federal officials. As such, even though memes poke fun at government wiretaps, there is a good chance you are not the subject of one. If you are, though, you likely need legal counsel to determine how best to safeguard your rights.

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