[10/25/16] Secret law enforcement requests to conduct electronic surveillance in domestic criminal cases have surged in federal courts for Northern Virginia and the District, but only one in a thousand of the applications ever becomes public, newly released data show.
The bare-bones release by the courts leaves unanswered how long, in what ways and for what crimes federal investigators tracked individuals’ data and whether long-running investigations result in charges.
Yet the listings of how often law enforcement applied to judges to conduct covert electronic surveillance — a list that itself is usually sealed — underscore the exponential growth in the use of a 1986 law to collect data about users’ telephone, email and other Internet communications.
Unsealing basic docket information “is an important first step for courts to recognize that they have been enabling a kind of vast, secret system of surveillance that we now know to be so pervasive,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Democracy.
The two federal courts are among the most active in the nation, with investigations that can span the country — and are among only a handfulknown to make even modest disclosures about their surveillance dockets.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said “there are no broad generalizations or presumptions about when matters are sealed or not sealed,” and that such decisions are “an individualized process.”
When courts choose to share information “on the use of these investigative tools, the Department [of Justice] has worked with them” to preserve “the integrity of ongoing investigations,” and shield witnesses and the reputations of targets who are never charged, Carr said.
In Northern Virginia, electronic-surveillance requests increased 500 percent in the past five years, from 305 in 2011 to a pace set to pass 1,800 this year.