San Francisco—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) lawsuit today against the Justice Department to shed light on whether the government has ever used secret court orders to force technology companies to decrypt their customers’ private communications, a practice that could undermine the safety and security of devices used by millions of people.
The lawsuit argues that the DOJ must disclose if the government has ever sought or obtained an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) requiring third parties—like Apple or Google—to provide technical assistance to carry out surveillance.
The suit separately alleges that the agency has failed to turn over other significant FISC opinions that must be declassified as part of surveillance reforms that Congress enacted with the USA FREEDOM Act.
EFF filed its FOIA requests in October and March amid increasing government pressure on technology companies to provide access to customers’ devices and encrypted communications for investigations. Although the FBI has sought orders from public federal courts to create a backdoor to an iPhone, it is unclear to what extent the government has sought or obtained similar orders from the FISC. The FISC operates mostly in secret and grants nearly every government surveillance request it receives.
The FBI’s controversial attempt to force Apple to build a special backdoor to an iPhone after the San Bernardino attacks underscored EFF’s concerns that the government is threatening the security of millions of people who use these devices daily. Many citizens, technologists and companies expressed similar outrage and concern over the FBI’s actions.
Given the public concern regarding government efforts to force private companies to make their customers less secure, EFF wants to know whether similar efforts are happening in secret before the FISC. There is good reason to think so. News outlets have reported that the government has sought FISC orders and opinions requiring companies to turn over source code so that federal agents can find and exploit security vulnerabilities for surveillance purposes.
Whether done in public or in secret, forcing companies to weaken or break encryption or create backdoors to devices undermines the safety and security of millions of people whose laptops and smartphones contain deeply personal, private information, said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo.
“If the government is obtaining FISC orders to force a company to build backdoors or decrypt their users’ communications, the public has a right to know about those secret demands to compromise people’s phones and computers,” said Cardozo. “The government should not be able to conscript private companies into weakening the security of these devices, particularly via secret court orders.”
In addition to concerns about secret orders for technical assistance, the lawsuit is also necessary to force the government to comply with the USA FREEDOM Act, said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Mark Rumold. Transparency provisions of the law require FISC decisions that contain significant or novel legal interpretations to be declassified and made public. However, the government has argued that USA FREEDOM only applies to significant FISC decisions written after the law was passed.
“Even setting aside the existence of technical assistance orders, there’s no question that other, significant FISC opinions remain hidden from the public. The government’s narrow interpretation of its transparency obligations under USA FREEDOM is inconsistent with the language of the statute and Congress’ intent,’’ said Rumold. “Congress wanted to bring an end to secret surveillance law, so it required that all significant FISC opinions be declassified and released. Our lawsuit seeks to hold DOJ accountable to the law.”
For the full complaint: