New data released this week by the DC District Court shows a massive increase in sealed court orders demanding location or internet data, as first reported by The Washington Post. The number of orders increased seven times over during the last three years, reaching 1,136 orders in 2016.
The orders include requests for historical cell site information from carriers — essentially your cell provider’s records on the location of your phone — as well as broadband providers’ records of connections to the internet. That connection data can be used to deduce the time, date, and size of a given email or instant message, as well as the sender and recipient. The data would not include any communications content, like the recording of a call or the data received from a website, but can still provide a detailed record of a person’s physical location and online activity.
Because of the legal precedent invoked by the orders, they are filed under seal, without public records or affidavits. Notably, obtaining the records does not require prosecutors to obtain a search warrant, but only demonstrate that the records are relevant to an ongoing investigation.
The disclosed requests are only those within the Washington, DC area, initiated by both the US Attorney and the Department of Justice. As a result, there may be similar orders not reflected in these statistics. It’s also not clear whether the rapid increase in orders is reflected nationwide. Still, the surge in DC orders suggests a rush to take advantage of the available location data, and a possible privacy threat to many users.
The new data was only made public after an extended court fight by BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold, who first filed in 2013. He was joined in the case last year by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. The case seeks to unseal all similar orders not directly related to an ongoing case, a motion the government has vigorously opposed.