When is a Phone Tap Not a Phone Tap: Megadata


Wiretaps require authorization from the courts. Therefore, without a warrant officers may not listen to our phone calls. However, there are other ways to use basic telephone information—information that doesn’t require a warrant—to conduct telephone surveillance. And what’s available can reveal enough sensitive and private information to enable law enforcement to “track” you and your associates.

My telephone metadata (the numbers I call, the length of those calls, etc.) could tell investigators quite a bit about me.  Keep in mind, this is not listening to my actual conversations. Instead, it is an examination of records.

By searching my phone records they’d quickly learn that I frequently call and/or text:

  • hotels
  • police academies
  • DA investigators
  • retired and active-duty police officers
  • medical examiners and corners
  • defense attorneys
  • bus companies
  • caterers
  • publishers
  • agents
  • authors
  • police supply companies
  • trophy companies
  • book stores
  • writer organizations
  • publicists
  • writer magazines
  • prosecutors
  • people in the film and TV business

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I’m more than likely involved in an event that involves writers, entertainment, and law enforcement. The event is associated with hotels and police academies. I advertise. Someone will win an award. And, since many of the numbers—hotel, academies, book stores, bus companies, etc. are located in or near Green Bay, Wi., the event is probably located there.

The calls lasting the longest are to a particular hotel and a specific police academy. Bingo! Those are the key locations.

This, the examination of numbers I call, is called a Hop. Person X calls Person Y = One Hop.

With those details nailed down it’s time expand the search by conducting a Two Hop. Person Y calls Person Z = Two Hop.

The example above, of my involvement with Writers’ Police Academy, was sort of basic and simple, but it was to provide an idea as to how a single hop works. So let’s go a bit further and look at a two hop.

Police want to learn the habits of a suspect, Ms. Susie Fancypants. They also want to know the identities of the people in her circle of associates, so they start with the numbers she calls on a regular basis, the one hops. Such as:

  • 234-432-2423 is the number belonging to Johnny Hunkalicious, who is not her spouse. She calls the number 872 times each day. All calls are during normal business hours when her spouse should/could be at work.
  • 654-456-6546 – She started calling this number one month after the calls to Hunkalicious began to show up on her phone record. It is the number to an obstetrician.
  • 935-539-9359 – An attorney who specializes in divorce. These calls start soon after the calls to the doctor began.

It’s pretty clear what’s going on, right? Hunkalicious is a lover. Ms. Fancypants is most likely pregnant. And, since she contacted a divorce attorney, well, she is probably planning to leave her husband.

Next, police put in motion the “two hop” by checking the phone records of Johnny Hunkalicious.

  • 909-099-9099 – Hunkilicious calls this number 872 times each day. It is the phone number of Susie Fancypants’s husband, Ralph Fancypants.
  • 444-555-6666 – Several calls are made to this number. It’s the office of Dr. I. Changeurequipment, a surgeon who specializes in gender reassignment surgery.
  • 272-727-7227 – The number for “It’s All Mine Cabaret”, a nightclub featuring drag queen singers.
  • 888-999-1010 – A wig store that caters to drag queens.

Moving on to the phone records of Mr. Fancypants. This is also a two-hop search.

  • 234-432-2423 – The number belonging to Johnny Hunkalicious, suspected lover of Ms. Fancypants. Ralph Fancypants calls Hunkalicious 924 times each day.
  • 272-727-7227 – The same drag queen club called by Hunkalicious.
  • 744-477-4747 – A florist who delivers only to the drag queen club.
  • 444-555-6666 – Several calls are made to this number. It’s the office of Dr. I. Changeurequipment, the surgeon who specializes in gender reassignment surgery.
  • 935-539-9359 – The attorney who specializes in divorce.
  • 333-333-3333 – A travel agency catering only to people with surgically reassigned genders.
  • 011-52-888-888-8888 – Realtor in Mexico.

What could investigators learn from these phone records?

  1. Johnny Hunkilicious is a very busy person who may be planning to have gender reassignment surgery.
  2. Mr. Fancypants is more than likely having an affair with Hunkilicious and plans to divorce his wife and run away to Mexico with him after one or both have gender reassignment surgery.
  3. Ms. Fancypants is in for a big surprise.

I know this was an oversimplified example, but you should now have an idea as to the sort of information that’s readily available to law enforcement, without a warrant. Actually, they would need a subpoena, but they’re easy to get.

Officials, starting with a single phone number, could continue to “hop” until they reach the desired results. Searches originating from a single number could encompass thousands of individuals and millions of phone records.

Okay, writers, this information could add a nice twist to a new story, so “hop” to it.