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ACLU wants judge to open up possibly sealed court-docket items related to FBI phone searches

The ACLU of Massachusetts this week asked a federal judge to order federal prosecutors and judges to stop sealing information about requests to unlock phone data - if they are, in fact, doing that.

The request, filed in US District Court in Boston, was spurred by the criminal case against the notorious Columbia Point Dawgs - 48 alleged members of which were indicted in June.

An FBI agent filed an affidavit in support of a request for a search warrant to force Apple to help him unlock an iPhone found in a car rented by alleged gang member Desmond Crawford. But the no actual application for a search warrant is listed on the case docket, the ACLU says. And this:

[R]aises the possibility that such filings may appear on separate, sealed docket sheets.

Dockets list documents related to a particular case - as well as information about hearing dates - and the ACLU argues that keeping the existence of documents private essentially violates the public's right to know what is going on in our courts under the First Amendment and common law dating back hundreds of years. The government is using a 1789 law, known as the All Writs Act to seek the electronic keys to data on devices.

In its filing, the ACLU writes of the importance of the public knowing about such search warrants given the debate sparked by the FBI's request for Apple to help it unlock a phone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters:

Public access to All Writs Act cases is vitally important to an ongoing and nationwide debate regarding whether the government can use the Act to conscript private actors to break into mobile electronic devices, such as mobile phones.

Research by ACLUM and the national ACLU has now revealed more than 60cases since 2008 in which the government has invoked the All Writs Act to seek orders requiring technology companies to unlock personal electronic devices. Almost all of these cases have public docket entries that demonstrate the existence of an All Writs Act application or order.

The US Attorney's office in Boston has until April 11 to respond to the ACLU request.

PDF icon FBI affidavit842.24 KB
PDF icon ACLU memorandum1006.48 KB


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