CHANGES in telephone technology and rising public sentiment to get tough on violent crime - often drug-related - are quietly raising the potential for widespread abuse of wiretapping. The potential extends beyond traditional concerns about preventing criminal investigations from treading on privacy rights. It also includes the theft of services, such as telephone service, and surveillance methods of private police forces.
``Anybody with the intelligence of a turnip has to be concerned about the potential'' for abuse, says Clifford S. Fishman, a law professor at the Columbus School of Law of the Catholic University of America.
``It's time for a look'' into the overall situation, says Jerry Berman, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union.
It's unclear who will do the looking: For the past two years Congress has not been watching the issue. Nor has the public, which has become more interested in fighting drugs and crime.
Mr. Berman says that any investigation should examine the extent to which new technology is being used, the effect of such technology, and the effectiveness of a 1987 law designed to broaden laws that cover illegal wiretapping.
Some new computerized telephone systems are made in ways that permit a computer expert either to listen in on all its phone calls, or else to use the system to make his own, says James A. Ross, a wiretap expert who is president of Ross Engineering Inc.
It's ``a lot easier to tap now'' than formerly, says Mr. Fishman, who also served for eight years as a New York City prosecutor. For one thing, ``a substantial percentage'' of today's phone calls go through electronic switching stations in telephone companies.
``Now all you have to do is ... connect the tap basically at the telephone company switching station,'' without having to climb telephone poles and physically attach a tap, he says. In addition, ``some of the modern equipment is extremely vulnerable'' to being wiretapped by computer, Mr. Ross says. He cites one model that can be wiretapped from afar so that every phone call can be heard.
Furthermore, some computerized phone systems are vulnerable to computer experts who take over the system and charge all their phone calls to it, Ross adds. These ``are being abused systematically, I believe, by drug dealers or big drug businesses.'' Heretofore wiretapping has been thought of as abuse of privacy; now come cases that are ``theft of service rather than theft of information,'' Ross says.
He cites a case of a company in Harrisburg, Pa., whose phone system was tapped, evidently through a computer, by a well-organized group. The group was apparently conducting its international drug business from a trailer in Harlem, N.Y., and charging the telephone costs to the Harrisburg firm. The company lost nearly $250,000 in one month in phone calls which included many to a nation involved in drug trafficking, Ross says.
The phone system of a firm outside Chicago was similarly tapped into by parties unknown, Ross says. It lost $51,624 in eight days. Many of the calls were placed to another country involved in the drug trade, Ross adds. ``It is my opinion that these are drug-related,'' he says.
Traditionally most concerns about wiretapping focus on what is being done by law enforcement officers. ``The biggest risk is in lawbreaking by public officials,'' says Edwin Delattre, the Bradley fellow in ethics at the American Enterprise Institute.
Cincinnati, for example, has been rocked this year by charges from two former telephone company employees that they and others conducted many illegal wiretaps for law enforcement agencies between 1972 and 1974. A grand jury investigation is under way.
But in general, US police departments are now adhering to the law, which requires judicial approval before wiretaps can be instituted, most experts say. Police training programs urge strict compliance with these laws, Mr. Delattre notes. In addition, he adds, law enforcement agencies exert supervision that would prevent individual policemen from tapping phones undetected.
One area of growing concern involves illegal wiretapping by private individuals. It is a matter about which most experts can only surmise. ``It's very hard to follow,'' says one privacy expert who requests anonymity. ``It doesn't occur in broad daylight. You essentially learn about it when there's a court suit and you find out what's been going on.'' Firms that have been illegally wiretapped usually want to keep anyone from knowing about it.
Delattre is concerned about what private police forces might be doing, saying they ``lack the accountability'' that is built into public metropolitan police forces. ``It's worth noting that more money is spent'' in the US on private police forces than on city police forces, he says. Private police forces generally have neither the degree of training nor supervision that metropolitan police do.
Corporations worry that secrets may be stolen, Fishman says. One way is by illegal wiretapping. ``I certainly know that industrial espionage is a major concern to corporations,'' he says.
Concern over the growing ease of wiretapping has yet to reach Capitol Hill. ``I'm not aware of any legislative initiatives, or that the complaint level has reached some sort of threshold'' that would bring congressional action, says Fred Wood of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Four years ago Mr. Wood wrote an exhaustive report on wiretapping in the US.
Wiretapping is ``not something anybody hears much about anymore,'' acknowledges an aide to Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier, (D) of Wisconsin, who two years ago wrote the last wiretapping law passed by Congress.
``It's very hard these days to draw any attention to civil-liberties problems because of the drug thing and the crime relationship,'' says Herman Schwartz, a professor of law at American University. ``The country is in something of a panic about drug problems.... They are all over the place, and of course there is the violence that frequently goes with it.''
Over the last two or three years in Congress ``the focus has shifted completely the other way,'' from wiretapping to drugs and crime, Professor Schwartz adds. ``But it's not just electronic surveillance. It's, I really think, a general public indifference'' to civil liberties issues.
Most Americans probably feel that whatever has to be done to deal with crime and drugs is permissible, irrespective of civil liberties questions, Schwartz says.
Meanwhile, the fact remains that wiretapping today is far easier than before. ``There's no comparison, today's vulnerabilities compared with yesterday's,'' Ross says of telephone tapping. ``With modern technology it's all done with clean hands, remotely, and with almost no chance of being detected.''