Researchers Ask Court To Unseal Documents Related To Technical Assistance Requests And Electronic Surveillance Warrants

from the great-unsealing-continues dept

This has the makings of a movement along the lines of the highly-unofficial “Magistrates Revolt.” More efforts are being made more frequently to push federal courts out of their default secrecy mode. The government prefers to do a lot of its work under the cover of judicial darkness, asking for dockets and documents to be sealed in a large percentage of its criminal cases.

Just in the last month, we’ve seen the ACLU petition the court to unseal dockets related to the FBI’s takedown of Freedom Hosting using a Tor exploit and Judge Beryl Howell grant FOIA enthusiast Jason Leopold’s request to have a large number of 2012 pen register cases unsealed.

Now, we have researchers Jennifer Granick and Riana Pfefferkorn petitioning [PDF] the Northern District of California court to unseal documents related to “technical assistance” cases — like the one involving the DOJ’s attempted use of an All Writs Order to force Apple to crack open a phone for it.

Petitioners Jennifer Granick and Riana Pfefferkorn, researchers at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society proceeding pro se, file this Petition to unseal court records. We file this Petition so that the public may better understand how government agents are using legal authorities to compel companies to assist them in decrypting or otherwise accessing private data subject to surveillance orders. Petitioners hereby seek the docketing of surveillance orders issued by this Court; the unsealing of those dockets; and the unsealing of the underlying Court records in surveillance cases relating to technical-assistance orders issued by this Court to communications service providers, smartphone manufacturers, or other third parties…

This district should contain a great number of documents fitting this description, seeing as it also contains a great number of service providers and third party tech companies.

More specifically, the researchers are looking to gain access to documents in cases where the government has used the following list of statutes to compel cooperation:

  • the Wiretap Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2522;
  • the Stored Communications Act (or “SCA”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-2712;
  • the Pen Register Act (or “Pen/Trap Act”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 3121-3127; and/or
  • the All Writs Act (or “AWA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1651

Not only that, but Granick and Pfefferkorn are asking the court to shift away from the default secrecy that has made this petition necessary.

[Petitioners request that] the Court revise its practices going forward, such that the Clerk’s office will assign case numbers to, docket, and enter into CM/ECF all applications and orders for search warrants, surveillance, and technical assistance; the Court will undertake a periodic review (e.g., annually or biannually) of sealed dockets, warrants, surveillance orders, and technical-assistance orders; and after such review, the Court will unseal those records for which there is no longer any need for continued sealing.

The researchers point out that secrecy in court records is a First Amendment issue: these documents were meant to be accessible by the general public. They also note that they aren’t asking for anything related to ongoing investigations or information that might compromise future investigations — like names of law enforcement personnel or other potential criminal investigation targets. All they’re asking is that the court stop granting the government permission to seal complete dockets so often and to perform periodic reviews of sealed cases to see whether the imposed secrecy is still warranted.

As it stands now, this large number of sealed documents prevents the public from knowing how law enforcement agencies and courts are interpreting (often outdated) tech-related laws. It’s preventing researchers like these two from gaining any insight on the government’s electronic surveillance efforts and it’s locking defense lawyers out of possibly precedential rulings that may affect current or future clients.

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Comments on “Researchers Ask Court To Unseal Documents Related To Technical Assistance Requests And Electronic Surveillance Warrants”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The secret uses will remain secret

They will never reveal them all since doing so would reveal the blatant misuses to protect Hollywood. The claims of terrorism will ring more and more false each time it is used until people realize that terrorism has always existed, and was not allowed to override the constitution on purpose. Governments that abuse secrecy to these levels are corrupt and need to be replaced with actual beneficial ones.

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