A US judge estimates that federal judges issue about 30,000 secret electronics surveillance orders a year.
Although tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy buffs would have us believe that the federal government tracks virtually every bit of information online, 30,000 taps in a country of over 300 million does not seem like much at all. In fact, more than 2.2 million Americans were incarcerated in 2010 and a total of more than 7 million are in some stage of the correctional process, so 30,000 really does sound like peanuts.
There are some problems. Although the surveillance orders have strict judicial oversight, they are issued with no adversarial proceeding due to their secrecy and most are never unsealed. Also, targeted individuals will never know someone went through their recycle bin and tracked their every move online.
Much of the surveillance is carried out under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, a law which is so out of date that it managed to unite corporations and digital rights advocates in calling for its reform.
Ars Technica reports US Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith joined the effort, calling for an end to the Orwellian policy of secrecy in a paper called “Gagged, Sealed and Delivered”. Smith became dismayed by the number of electronic surveillance orders and the secrecy that accompanies them.
While Smith’s traditional legalist approach is admirable, it seems unlikely that any new law would do much to limit secrecy and order authorities to disclose their orders after they are done with the investigation. Secrecy is seen to serve as a deterrent, and Big Content would probably have a fit if any effort was made to limit it.