Misuse of electronic surveillance by governments

Other Names:
Electronic bugging by intelligence agencies
Electronic espionage
Interception of telecommunications
Electronic eavesdropping
Invasion of privacy by government technology

The use of electronic devices to obtain information clandestinely. The approach may be relatively unsophisticated as in the use of bugs implanted in office equipment or it may be very sophisticated as with the use of world-wide networks of satellites and monitoring services to track communications of a particular type. Sigint is the term given to intelligence gleaned from the interception and deciphering of government and military signals of other nations.


Nearly all countries have established some form of wiretapping capability over telephone, fax and telex communications. In most cases, these intercepts are initiated and authorized by law enforcement agencies. Wiretapping abuses have been detected in most countries, sometimes occurring on a vast scale involving thousands of illegal taps. The abuses invariably affect anyone "of interest" to a government. Targets include political opponents, student leaders and human rights workers.

Law enforcement agencies have traditionally worked closely with telecommunications companies to formulate arrangements that would make phone systems "wiretap friendly." Such arrangements range from allowing police physical access to telephone exchanges, to installing equipment to automate the interception.

Electronic surveillance is widely used by governments of both East and West, whether singly or in combination. Used by intelligence agencies, especially in espionage and counter-espionage activities. It is increasingly used by corporations for purposes of industrial espionage and also used by organized crime. In 1985 the USA National Security Agency initiated a five-year programme, estimated to cost up to $40 million, to encode most of the millions of electronic messages exchanged by USA government and defence contractors to counteract surveillance by the USSR. Because of the success of this programme, it is reported that the USA government is resisting the transfer of more sophisticated telecommunications (especially fibre optic systems) to the USSR because it would make it more difficult to track communications and would jeopardize the extensive investment in satellite monitoring facilities.

There are widespread violations of laws relating to surveillance of communications, even in the most democratic of countries. The U.S. State Department's annual review of human rights violations finds that over 90 countries engage in illegally monitoring the communications of political opponents, human rights workers, journalists and labour organizers. In France, a government commission estimated in 1996 that there were over 100,000 wiretaps conducted by private parties, many on behalf of government agencies. In Japan, police were recently fined 2.5 million yen for illegally wiretapping members of the Communist party.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
Problem Type:
D: Detailed problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST