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Wiretapping refers to listening in on electronic communications on telephones, computers, and other devices. Many governments use it as a law enforcement tool, and it is also used in fields like corporate espionage to gain access to privileged information. Depending on where in the world one is, wiretapping may be tightly controlled with laws that are designed to protect privacy rights, or it may be a widely accepted practice with little or no protections for citizens. Several advocacy organizations have been established to help civilians understand these laws in their areas, and to fight illegal wiretapping.
One of the earliest wiretappers was Abraham Lincoln, who listened in on telegraph conversations during the Civil War. Since then, wiretapping has become much more complex, and concerned citizens have sometimes questioned the legality of this practice, especially in countries which place a high value on privacy rights. Since the listening is covert, people are not made aware that their lines are tapped by government agencies until the operation is concluded, and while agencies must get warrants to approve wiretaps, they are sometimes given out on very shaky grounds.
There are a number of ways to carry out a wiretapping operation, ranging from concealing electronic devices in a phone to tapping into a telecommunications line somewhere along its travel from the device to a routing or exchange center. In many countries, governments have agreements with telecommunications companies which ensure easy access to lines of communication for this purpose.
While many people associate wiretapping specifically with landline phones, governments can also tap mobile phones and computer communications. It is very difficult to protect oneself from wiretapping, since it can be difficult to identify and trace taps, and while there are techniques to make it harder, there is no way to prevent a tap on a communications device. This is especially irritating for people who want to prevent illegal wiretaps, such as those used by rival companies.
Prevailing laws about wiretapping vary widely. Generally, people who suspect a wiretap on their line can report it to their telecommunications company, which may investigate the claim. If an illegal tap is found, the company will usually remove it, but legal ones achieved with the use of a warrant will not be lifted. People who are concerned about the privacy of communications should hold sensitive conversations in person, if possible, or consider adopting the use of a code to convey information.