District Court Judge Orders Last-Minute Sealing Of Documents Related To Stingray Devices And Cell Tower Data Dumps
from the and-then-seals-the-order-itself dept
The government clearly does not want to talk about its surveillance tools: stingray devices, cell phone tower data dumps, pen/trap registers. This opacity begins at the bottom, with law enforcement agencies conveniently quoting manufacturer non-disclosure agreements as a way to deny records requests or route around obtaining warrants.
When it appears records detailing use of these methods may make their way into the public domain, the DOJ itself steps in (via its US Marshals Service) and seizes the documents. Anything the government has as its disposal is used in order to keep these records out of the public eye.
Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica brings news that the US government is again inserting itself between public records and the public.
Serving as an outgoing United States magistrate judge, Brian Owsley had decided that one of his final judicial acts would be to unseal more than 100 of his own judicial orders involving digital surveillance that he himself had sealed at the government’s request.Brian Owsley notes that this behavior is "not normal."
But not long after Owsley's move last year, a US district judge vacated Owsley’s order and resealed them all. That order itself was then sealed.
"I sent in various ways to the government, a number of applications and I said I'm going to unseal these unless you tell me why I shouldn't. These were done in waves. The first wave were completed five years previous, past the statute of limitations, and quite likely no longer really significant. That was the first wave. The government did not oppose unsealing of any of them. So I spoke to the court's office and said to upload them to make them available online, and as they were doing that, somehow this district judge found out about it an interjected himself into the process. If the government has said: 'We don't think these things should be unsealed,' that's one thing. But just out of the blue the district judge interjecting himself, that's a little unusual."This unusual move prompted another. Dow Jones, the owner of the Wall Street Journal, has filed a motion asking the district court to unseal the documents. The applications the government buried at the last minute include all of those items listed above: stingray devices, cell phone tower dumps and pen register requests.
The thing is that none of these documents should still be sealed. As Owsley states, everything affected deals with closed investigations. There's nothing ongoing and anything the government feels might compromise future investigations should be redacted -- which then can at least be challenged in court, if need be.
The filing notes that the burial of Owsley's orders isn't an outlier.
Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith estimates that tens of thousands of sealed electronic surveillance orders issued by federal district courts remain inaccessible to the public and the press—even long after the investigations underlying those orders have terminated.The government's antipathy towards FOIA requests continues. And it highlights the incredible hypocrisy of its rationale and actions. According to every law enforcement and investigative agency in the US, Smith vs. Maryland grants no expectation of privacy to information handed over to third parties.
No one in the data collection business wants to be held accountable for abuse or forced to operate responsibly in the future. When the simple invocation of "terror," "drugs" or other criminal activity fails to drive off those seeking documents, the government resorts to other means to keep its actions out of the public eye, whether its extensive, unnecessary retractions or more extreme measures, like refusing to unseal documents.
To these entities, our lives are an open book. But if citizens want to take a look at what the government is doing with this information, or how it obtains it, these entities do all they can to ensure the flow of data remains strictly one way.