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Electronic Surveillance

Constitutional Law, Legislation, Common Law, Further Readings

Observing or listening to persons, places, or activities—usually in a secretive or unobtrusive manner—with the aid of electronic devices such as cameras, microphones, tape recorders, or wire taps. The objective of electronic surveillance when used in law enforcement is to gather evidence of a crime or to accumulate intelligence about suspected criminal activity. Corporations use electronic surveillance to maintain the security of their buildings and grounds or to gather information about competitors.

Cameras are used for traffic surveillance in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea.

Electronic surveillance permeates almost every aspect of life in the United States. In the public sector, the president, Congress, judiciary, military, and law enforcement all use some form of this technology. In the private sector, business competitors, convenience stores, shopping centers, apartment buildings, parking facilities, hospitals, banks, employers, and spouses have employed various methods of electronic eavesdropping. Litigation has even arisen from covert surveillance of restrooms.

Three types of electronic surveillance are most prevalent: WIRE TAPPING, bugging, and videotaping. Wire tapping intercepts telephone calls and telegraph messages by physically penetrating the wire circuitry. Someone must actually "tap" into telephone or telegraph wires to accomplish this type of surveillance. Bugging is accomplished without the aid of telephone wires, usually by placing a small microphone or other listening device in one location to transmit conversations to a nearby receiver and recorder. Video surveillance is performed by conspicuous or hidden cameras that transmit and record visual images that may be watched simultaneously or reviewed later on tape.

Electronic eavesdropping serves several purposes: (1) enhancement of security for persons and property; (2) detection and prevention of criminal, wrongful, or impermissible activity; and (3) interception, protection, or appropriation of valuable, useful, scandalous, embarrassing, and discrediting information. The law attempts to strike a balance between the need for electronic surveillance and the privacy interests of those affected.

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