In a major victory for journalists and privacy and transparency advocates, a federal court has started the process of unsealing secret records related to the government's use of electronic surveillance.
US District Court Judge Beryl Howell said at a hearing Friday morning that absent an objection by government attorneys, the court would post to its website next week a list of all case numbers from 2012 in which federal prosecutors in Washington, DC applied for an order to install a pen register or a trap and trace device.
A pen register is an electronic apparatus that tracks phone numbers called from a specific telephone line (though the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act expanded the definition of pen register to allow for collection of email headers as well). A trap and trace device is similar, but tracks the phone numbers of incoming calls.
For decades, court records relating to these documents have typically been sealed in their entirety, including even the docket numbers. Next week's release, which is in response to a three-year-old petition filed by VICE News, will be a crucial first step in learning details about the electronic surveillance orders, and the beginning of a multilayered process that will ultimately lead to the disclosure of thousands of pen register applications dating back at least five years.