Stanford Researchers Request Court Unseal Surveillance Requests

November 21, 2016

Data privacyTwo researchers affiliated with Stanford University have asked the federal district court for the Northern District of California to unseal multiple requests made by law enforcement authorities for technical assistance from private parties in association with electronic monitoring and surveillance activities.  The researchers are attempting to analyze the scope of law enforcement reliance on technical assistance from private parties for electronic surveillance.  Their ultimate goal is reportedly to provide the public with greater visibility into the extent to which technology companies and other private organizations are compelled by law enforcement authorities to facilitate and to conduct electronic eavesdropping activities.

The researchers note that a substantial number of court cases now involve some form of electronic surveillance, monitoring or content access.  They contend that, in many of those cases, law enforcement authorities request assistance from private parties or compel those private companies to facilitate, enable or conduct the necessary electronic activities.  The researchers note, however, that there seems to be little publicly accessible information regarding the scope of those activities or the interaction between the government authorities and the private parties involved, as many of those requests are made under seal and thus shielded from public disclosure.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerThe researchers identified approximately 70 federal cases they claim are appropriate for unsealing of the technical assistance requests.  Those cases include ones in which no charges were ultimately filed, investigations were terminated, or the seal associated with the inquiry expired.  The researchers have asked the federal district court to unseal the requests for technical assistance associated with electronic eavesdropping and data access made in those specified cases.

Reportedly, the focus of this inquiry is to make publicly accessible information that clarifies the type of technical assistance most frequently sought by law enforcement authorities and the standards used by the federal courts to determine under what circumstances such assistance should be required from private parties.  The researchers apparently want scholars and public interest advocates to have access to this information for analytical purposes.  They also apparently want the public to have access to the information to provide greater transparency regarding monitoring of their electronic communications.

Recent debate associated with a range of incidents including the FBI’s conflict with Apple over access to iPhone content and Yahoo’s disclosure of its willingness to scan content of hundreds of millions of email messages in response to U.S. government national security requests illustrates the lack of transparency with respect to court oversight of electronic surveillance activities by the government.  In this environment, the data request made by the researchers in this case is both reasonable and vital to facilitate effective policy discussion.  If an effective and appropriate balance is to be developed between protection of personal privacy and necessary government investigatory activities in the digital environment, then information of the sort requested by these researchers must be made readily available to scholars, policymakers, and the general public.