U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington U.S. COURTS

It is easier than ever for law enforcement agencies to find out where you are, what you are doing, and who you are in contact with. In fact, it doesn't even take a warrant: Using pen registers and trap and trace devices, police and other law enforcement agencies can demand information from tech and phone companies and, with a court order, they'll usually get it.

How often, and why, law enforcement accesses our personal data in this way has largely been unknown to the public. That, however, recently changed thanks to a lawsuit filed by The Stranger and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In 2017, we filed a petition with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington requesting that these records be made accessible to the public. That case was settled in January of 2019, and the U.S. Attorney's Office agreed to start making this data available in semi-annual reports, which will include case numbers and the crime being investigated. As my colleague Lester Black wrote at the time, these reports will provide "the public in Seattle [with] an unprecedented understanding of how investigators spy on Americans."

The first report is out now. It doesn't tell us who is being investigated, but it does give us a sense of how often law enforcement is using these surveillance methods, what crimes are being investigated, and, as time passes, if the use of these tactics increases, decreases, or holds steady.

"Before this lawsuit, none of this was publicly available," says Aaron Mackey, an attorney for EFF. "This report represents the first step in getting a basic understanding of how frequently this is happening in Seattle. Seattle is home to a number of the world's biggest technology companies and those companies provide services to users around the world. This report opens a window into how law enforcement is accessing our information as part of their investigations."