Every year, the federal government makes thousands of requests for court-ordered electronic surveillance, often without a warrant. And long after the investigations that spawned them have ended, the vast majority of these legal proceedings are sealed indefinitely from public view—unlike nearly all other aspects of American judicial proceedings.
The Wall Street Journal surveyed 25 of the top federal district courts in the U.S. and found that most couldn’t provide even basic data on the electronic-surveillance orders, which allow investigators to trace telephone calls, locate wireless phones and monitor Internet accounts. What data were available indicates a significant increase in location tracking and other high-tech surveillance methods—and a system in which more than 90% of the documents showing the government’s legal reasoning are sealed from the public.
On the heels of its investigation, the Journal filed legal motions in federal court in Texas to unseal some of these applications and orders, arguing that the First Amendment grants the public the right to access court records, including hearing transcripts, docket sheets, and search-warrant applications, and that electronic surveillance orders should be no different.
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