Question about law enforcement recording a cell phone conversation

Has anyone have any general knowledge or experience with law enforcement being able to record (or at least listen to) a cell phone conversation?

I’m not looking for nitty gritty specifics on how to handle it, or what different states say about it - that is what lawyers are for. I’m just looking for verification of a few high level things:

  1. That they can in fact request conversations from the cell phone carriers (it would make total sense that they can - in order to track suspected perps)
  2. A court order is required for it to be legal
  3. That one can contact the cell phone provider and ask them if there is a ‘tap’ on the line (having been requested by someone from law enforcement), and they have to inform you if there is, provided there is no warrant from a court for it.


  1. Only the Government can order a wiretap on a phoneline - and they will be the ones doing any recording. Your carrier cannot listen in or record phone conversations. So the warrants cannot get past conversations - just dates and times of prior calls - no actual recordings from prior calls.
  2. Warrants are still required, for terrorism it’sthrough a special court, I’m not sure how specific they have to be. But they may be as simple as a list of phone lines, a reason they’re suspected and a judges signature. This may have changed since Obama took over.
  3. No one is going to tell you if your phone is being tapped.

What constitutes government? The FBI? CIA? NSA? What about local law enforcement personnel?

Also - regarding whether cell phone carriers record conversations or not, I’m mostly interested in whether they can from a technological perspective - not necessarily whether they can or cannot from a legal one.

Technologically, of course they can. It’s much more trivial than recording land lines used to be 40 years ago. At some point, your conversation is just a stream of bits in a server, physically located in a location controlled by your carrier. All they have to do is direct those bits to a hard drive, as well as passing them down the network.

All of the above. - Any law enforcement agency.

Thats pretty much what I thought - that it can easily be done.

Now, say someone from law enforcement approached GBCC (Great Big Cellphone Carrier) and says that they are tracking a big time drug dealer to stake out the next major bust. They inform GBCC that the cell phone number of interest is 303-555-1212, and that they’d like to hear the conversations so they know where/when to strike.

A warrant or court order is still required to legally do this, correct?

So once we’ve established that it can be done, and there is a legal path - now we can talk about point #3 in the OP. Just because there is a legal path to do something doesn’t mean it is always followed. There must be some way that the law protects innocent citizens from being surveilled for no good reason. Maybe that method isn’t a very active one, and requires Mr Innocent to inquire of the phone company whether there has been requests for recorded conversations without a proper court order - but at least that is something.
After all, if the legal course is to get a court order, and one hasn’t been obtained - then GBCC would have little legal footing if they lied and told Mr Innocent that no tap has been put in place, when in fact an illegal one has (and knowingly, to boot).

No, there isn’t really any such something.

Regarding “protect innocent citizens from being surveilled”, 1950’s McCarthyites would have said that if they were really innocent, they shouldn’t be worried about their government overhearing them. Nowdays, most people have a bit more concern for privacy.

One protection is that you can go to court and sue the government agency that initiated the surveillance. But in court you would have to prove some actual damages.

And many judges are rather protective of government agencies, if they followed the appropriate procedures and got a warrant – after all, to get a warrant they had to convince some judge that there was reasonable cause to suspect that the person was breaking the law.

This really has two parts. The first is regarding conventional local/state/FBI law enforcement.

Yes, in general, the law protects citizens by requiring law enforcement to get a warrant for something like phone taps.

If the tap is legal, clearly we don’t want the phone company admitting it’s there, right? So there’s no reason to have a law saying the phone company has to admit legal taps.
And if the tap is illegal, why would the phone company follow a law saying they have to admit it? After all, they’ve just broken the law by tapping the phone, so what makes you think they’d wouldn’t also break a law about admitting it? So a law requiring phone companies to admit to illegal taps seems a bit pointless.

The legal recourse that we have now is twofold: first, and most importantly, if the police tap your phone without a warrant, they can’t use any of that information in court to convict you. Not only will the judge throw out any recordings made without a warrant, the judge will throw out any other evidence information gained because of the recordings. So even if the police catch you red-handed dumping a body, if the only reason they knew where to catch you dumping it was an illegal phone tap, the judge would throw out all of that body-dumping evidence. Makes a pretty strong incentive for the cops to get warrants. Secondly, you could theoretically sue the cops for invasion of privacy or something, but that’s generally an uphill battle if the cops can show even the slightest evidence that they were legitimately investigating you.
Now for NSA/CIA stuff in our modern post-constitutional post-911 world, the answer is different. All of the above theoretically still applies, but courts and Congress have generally given the government the OK to blantantly lie about any and all surveillance and claim ‘national security’ to avoid talking about anything they don’t feel like actively lying about.

This is not correct. Not only can the carrier monitor your calls, they have service equipment that allows them to do it in the field with nothing more than the monitor, an antenna, and the network access code.

A little homework fro you


I haven’t been able to find anything which shows what the current state fo our privacy is, or whether the Obama Administration has made any changes.

Really? I’ve never heard anything of that nature, in fact I would imagine it’s quite the opposite. Maybe 20 years ago you could stick an antenna in the air and get cell phone conversations, but now that everything’s been digitized it is virtually impossible to get any meaningful data without cooperation from the network carrier. Just take a quick look at the inherent security of a code division multiple access network (from here):

To put it mildly, it would be a major security breach for anyone but the network operator to have access to these calls.

In the scenario that I’m thinking of that brings this whole thing up, Quercus seems to be closest in terms of relevance of response.

I admit, I intentionally left things somewhat vague in the OP because I wanted to make sure it was as clear as possible that I was NOT here looking for legal advice, but rather verification of general technical ability, as well as any generic ACLU-type law that might be in place.

Quercus - you have a good point about phone companies not wanting to admit to putting in an illegal tap. I fully agree that if the tap is legal, the phone company isn’t going to say anything. But how much resistance would a phone company put up if a request was put in by a small town cop who wanted to hear the conversations of a certain someone? I’d like to think the phone company would say ‘no, get a warrant’ - but I’ve seen enough behind-the-scenes favors and stuff with police in my time that I have no confidence that would actually be the case. Afterall, the phone company could only possibly get in trouble if actually caught - and unless you have the right set of circumstances (non warranted tap, plus the tap-pee actually being suspicious), that wouldn’t happen.

Here’s what I mean: this page, section 2. The tapping they discuss is, I suspect, referring to old fashioned telephone lines. You call up the phone company, ask them to search the line, they do - and find something on a random street a few blocks away. So they tell you. It was an illegal tap - they can’t possibly afford a crew to rove around town looking for taps 24x7. However, now with the prevelance of cell phones, those physical lines that are more accessible no longer exist.

So I’m just trying to see if anyone has experienced this, or something similar.

But the question was “can the carrier record conversations”, not “Can any schlub with an antenna record conversations.” And your cell phone carrier absolutely can (technologically) record any and all conversations going through their network.

They used to do this on The Wire regularly. In fact it was central to the main plot on several seasons. I know it’s fiction, but from what I understand it’s also the most accurate portrayal of police work on television.

Maybe, and maybe not.

It might be more likely that in a small town the personal relationship between a local cop & the phone company staff that they might do this without a warrant. (I suspect my ex-wife has become a big drug dealer…’) But it’s also likely that in a small town one of the phone company secretaries knows the ex-wife, and will slip her the word that her phone is illegally tapped.

And are there even any small-town phone companies any more? Most of them have been taken over by parts of the Bell system or GTE, so there aren’t many actual independent ones left. Thus the manager of the small-town phone company is probably just a local-level employee of a big phone company, which will have strict rules regarding wiretaps. So that person would be risking their job by cooperating with a local com in an illegal wiretap.

Probably much more likely to say ‘Sorry, I can’t do that without a warrant. But if you were to happen to take this simple device, and attach it to the appropriate pair of wires in the green box at the end of the block, and then check the recording each day, you might get useful information. But I and the phone company know nothing about it (wink, wink).’

A cell phone conversation (or any phone conversation) once it reaches the phone system, becomes a stream of bits (occupying one of 24 channels in a T1 connection, etc.). The key in the digital world is establishing the link between the two ends of the conversation.

The government has required for years that new phone technology still allow the provider to tap the phone conversation at the (legal) request of law enforcement. Usually, this is a matter of telling the switching computers to send a duplicate of the data stream to a device which will record it. Pretty simple, if the switches and routers can handle the request. Newer ones can.

Of course, Podunk T&T likely still has the old electromechanical switches, so this discussion is probably irrelevant for them.

Would someone do it as a “favour” outside of legal channels? As previous poster said, how many small-time phone compaies are left? the big ones probably are not amenable to persuasion from small-town police. Any employee doing such a favour would quickly find themselves fired. The process is likely monitored and logged to the nth degree to prevent such abuses. The upper management understands that a “friendly” employee puts the corporation at risk of millions of dollars in lawsuit dmages, and one disgruntled tech employee can blow the whistle. (As happened with Cheney’s ATT data eavesdropping). Maybe you share coffee and donuts with the local Boss Hawg, but is it worth losing a pretty cushy job over?

The motivation is even stronger. As Pelicano is finding, illegal wiretapping is illegal. It can - even if at the (illegal) request of the police - possibly result in a long stay at the crowbar Hilton. It’s not nudge-nudge wink-wink. A simple regime change or disgruntled employee or principled judge runs the risk of sending you to jail. Do some people still do stuff that can land them in jail, even as just a favour? I’m sure they do, but it is a pretty good general motivator to hew to the straight and narrow path.

The NSA of course, has nifty gadgets that can point at a microwave tower and read the conversations on the T1/T3 streams going by. Of course, as the world’s microwaves go silent the NSA has other tricks - there was an article in wired about how they stole a scientist’s patent for underwater fiber optic connectors. Wonder what those are for?

The NSA is forbidden from spying on US citizens on US soil. Despite the twisted interpretations of Cheney’s tame lawyer monkeys, that’s pretty much ruling out listening in on local conversations inside the country. Again, it IS illegal and anyone going along without direct assurance from the VP himself is probably putting job and freedom on the line, if not now then in 10 or 20 years.

So the question is, what grounds do police need for a warrant?

Enough to convince a local judge that he has “probable cause” to believe that a crime has been committed, and that a search of this location/tap of this phone line/etc. will uncover evidence of the crime or contraband from the crime.

In a small town, the local cops probably have a closer relationship with the local judge than with the phone company manager. So they might have an easier time persuading the judge to issue a search warrant than persuading phone company people to risk their jobs doing an illegal wiretap.

It’s not uncommon in larger cities for the local cops to know just which judge is most likely to issue a search warrant for which types of suspected crime. And some cops have their favorite, friendly judge.

Some District Courts have tried to prevent this kind of ‘judge shopping’ by requiring that all search warrants be issued by a specific assigned judge, with each judge rotating through this assignment for a couple weeks or a month.

Silk, you might want to pm me.

To the best of my knowledge, the answers to your questions are: 1. Yes 2. Sometimes, and 3. Not necessarily.

It’s ridiculously easy to do, it happens all the time, and my ex (a techie who works in law enforcement) did this to my cell phone briefly.

As for details, and legal aspects, again, please contact me, should you care to.

Can’t discuss freely in an open forum because: I’m new, everyone will think I’m a paranoid schizophrenic, and I’ll give out way too much information, some of which I might be held accountable for, and which could be a little too personally identifiable for comfort.

It’s late, I’ve got a huge day tomorrow, but am happy to help, if you or someone might be in danger, or are potentially having their constitutional rights violated.

You might be interested in this article from Wired today.