The public will learn how often federal investigators in Seattle obtain private details about your communications, such as who you called and when, as a result of a petition to unseal those records brought by EFF client The Stranger.
Federal prosecutors and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington clerk’s office have agreed to begin tracking and docketing various forms of warrantless surveillance requests and next year will issue reports every six months detailing the cases.
The new docketing procedures will apply whenever law enforcement officials seek various information under federal laws that authorize the collection of information from various communications and online service providers. This includes the ability for law enforcement to obtain metadata and other information from the likes of Google, Facebook, and phone companies.
The new reporting requirement is a big step forward, as previously the secrecy surrounding the requests was so broad that there was no public docket available. The reports will include the case numbers and the principle crime being investigated every time the government asks to use one of these surveillance methods. The reporting builds on similar, groundbreaking work led by investigative journalist Jason Leopold and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The report will both allow the public to learn basic details about the frequency of the requests and provide researchers, news media, and anyone else who is interested with enough information to subsequently request to unseal specific cases.
The Stranger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, filed the petition in November 2017 in a bid to unseal secret electronic surveillance dockets that had historically been under seal, as well as request new procedures that would allow for public access moving forward.
After federal prosecutors opposed the petition, the federal court hearing the case recommended that prosecutors and The Stranger meet to discuss alternatives. After that mediation in July 2018, federal prosecutors and the court’s clerk began working on the agreement that went into effect this year.
EFF applauds the clerk and federal prosecutors’ efforts to allow greater public access to these court records. Because the new docketing procedures provide much of the transparency that The Stranger sought, the paper asked the court to dismiss the case, which it did last week.
EFF would like to thank The Stranger for pushing for greater transparency. We also owe enormous thanks to Geoffrey M. Godfrey, Nathan T. Alexander, David H. Tseng of Dorsey Whitney LLP’s Seattle, Washington office, for their help representing The Stranger.