The Smoking Gun is shocked, shocked! that a federal court in Alabama allowed the release of 40 sealed court documents onto the Internet via PACER, the court's universal online records service. That's right, the site whose stock and trade is releasing court documents such as mug shots and police reports wants you to know this is a "shocking failure" in the court's confidentiality procedure.
Seriously though, the gaffe is a pretty bad breach of confidentiality that could potentially endanger the safety of individuals and investigations.
Most of the documents released online were applications by prosecutors for telephone records and so-called pen registers and trap-and-trace devices, which record numbers calling and being called by a given phone. Some also requested access to Facebook records as part of ongoing investigations, and at least two requests for approval for surveillance cameras to be installed at two different homes and businesses. According to TSG, "the corresponding PACER entries included the name of the business (which a reporter easily located) and the exact addresses of the two homes now being surveilled by federal agents."
Seemingly purely to make a point, TSG ran three completely blurred-out photos of the business and homes.
TSG will not further identify where the hidden cameras have been installed, since such a disclosure could compromise the government’s ongoing criminal investigation (though here, here, and here are photos of the targeted locations--blurred, of course, to render them unidentifiable).
While probably not a harbinger of implosion for the federal court system, this is still a fairly important story, and TSG is the perfect outfit to report it because reporters there spend pretty much all their time mucking around in court records. But the irony, of course, is hard to escape. If what was in those documents turned out to be a better story than the fact the documents were made public, would TSG still have pulled the alarm on the privacy breach?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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