Private Investigators and Federal Electronic Surveillance Laws

In addition to educating yourself on state surveillance laws as they pertain to your private investigative business, you must remain educated about federal surveillance laws as to ensure your business conduct is always within the parameters of the law.

The Wire and Electronic Communications Interception and Interception of Oral Communications Act

This act, which was formerly known as the Wiretap Act, includes specific language about wiretapping. Specifically, wiretapping almost always requires a court order issued a judge. It is up to the judge to determine if there is probable cause to believe that a crime is either being committed or is about to be committed.

Electronic surveillance means intercepting telephone transmissions by intercepting the signal to the telephone (i.e. eavesdropping on a conversation without the consent of both parties). In addition to electronic surveillance for telephones, many states have now included data communications in their electronic surveillance laws.

It is up both state and federal policymakers to weigh the need to ensure security and safety with the importance of individual privacy.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was passed in 1986, includes language regarding surveillance as it relates to cellphones, email, other electronic communications devices, and transactional records. In particular, this Act governs real-time interception of the information transmitted to an attached electronics device.

Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which was enacted in 1994, is a digital telephony law that was created to preserve the wiretapping capabilities of law enforcement officials. This meant requiring telephone companies to design their systems in such a manner as to allow for government access when needed.


This piece of legislation, which was passed by Congress in response to the September 11th terror attacks, is likely the most well-known and controversial legislation passed in recent years. The PATRIOT Act significantly broadened the scope of the federal electronic surveillance laws to include terrorism and computer fraud, among others. Intelligence information gained from wiretaps may be shared with members of law enforcement, intelligence, immigration, and national security. It also expands the use of traditional “trap and trace” devices to include not only telephones, but Internet communications, as well.