What is Wiretapping?
This article provides an overview of wiretapping, including a review of the Wiretap Act and a list of one-party and two-party consent states. Wiretapping, also known as telephone tapping, is the process of monitoring telephone and Internet conversations by a third party, often by covert means. Wiretapping received its name because the monitoring connection was a physical electrical tap that was placed on the telephone line.
The Wiretap Act
The Wiretap Act (18 U.S. Code § 2511) is a federal law that protects privacy in communications with other persons. Under the Act, it is illegal to intentionally or purposefully intercept, disclose, or use the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication through the use of a “device.” There are civil and criminal penalties for violating the Act, but there are exceptions.
Types of Wiretapping
Intentional wiretapping refers to someone who deliberately intercepts communication. Ignorance of the law cannot be used as a defense when it is violated.
Legal wiretapping by a government agency is also called “lawful interception”.
Passive wiretapping monitors or records the conversation traffic, while active wiretapping alters or otherwise affects it.
Eavesdropping is the simple act of listening to other people’s conversation without their knowledge. Usually, no special equipment is involved or necessary for someone to eavesdrop on a conversation. In some situations, private investigators use sound amplification equipment to listen to conversations at a distance.
How Wiretapping Works
HowStuffWorks has a great video that explains how the process works.
List of One-Party Consent States
The following states require only one party to consent to record a phone call or conversation to make the recording lawful.
District of Columbia (Washington D.C.)
Michigan (see other statute)
Rhode Island (see case law)
South Carolina (no statute, see case law)
Wisconsin (see other statute)
List of Two-Party Consent States
The following states require the consent of every party to record a phone call or conversation to make the recording lawful.
What do Private Investigators Need to Know?
Private investigators need to know that wiretapping is illegal. Intentionally using wiretapping technology to intercept communications is in violation of the law and will carry consequences.
In cases where a private investigator is conducting counter-surveillance, it may be helpful to understand what a physical tap looks like and how it operates. Having an understanding of the technology used will help investigators uncover evidence of wire taps. Private investigators can use electronic bug detectors to scan for such devices.
Mobile Phone Spy Software
Mobile Phone Spy Software is a similar process used by parents and employers to monitor phones and computers that they own. For more legal definitions, visit our Glossary of Legal and Investigation Terms.
Questions and Comments
If you have any questions about wire tapping or phone tapping, please leave a message below.