Report Documents California Wiretap Explosion, but Locked File Limits Data Access

Monday, May 25, 2015

California is diverse. Although state-level wiretap applications were up 44% last year, San Francisco County and 34 others had none. Riverside County had more than the other 57 counties combined.

There is much information like that to be mined from the newly-released “California Electronic Interceptions Report” (pdf), but the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reports that it won’t be as easy to access as in the past.

The California Department of Justice (DOJ) released the report as a locked PDF, a file format that reduces the ability to analyze the data in alternative formats. No copying and pasting into an Excel spreadsheet. The department cited security needs for its decision.

The department suggests that in order to make sense of the information in the report, its elaborate, multi-page tables “should be read in conjunction with one another to evaluate the impact intercepts have on public safety.”

Good luck with that. 

EFF didn’t say whether it tried PDF Unlock or this guy’s tricks on the report. But they asked Washington Post database editor Steven Rich what he thought. He wrote them:

“It's possible to get the data out of the PDF but it's an amazing amount of work to get it in a usable form. This is an insanely difficult format, given that the file, based on the metadata, came out of Word. The only format worse than a PDF in this case is a scanned PDF.”

Locking files is an attempt to limit transparency in an annual report that provides what the EFF calls a “wellspring of information for criminal justice research.” That can impede media, academic and government analysts and scare away the general public. EFF said it was possible that the department would be locking up “all of its criminal justice data” in the future.

EFF wants the data files. Without open data, analysts can’t measure trends in wiretap use county by county and year over year. They can’t aggregate the number of intercepted communications and the number of people involved, or tell how many wiretaps rendered no information. They can’t do much of anything with it.    

The state’s first wiretap law, in 1989, let law enforcement officers use the surveillance tool while investigating certain kinds of crimes. Senate Bill 1428 expanded the use of wiretapping in 2010 to include modern electronic communications. The number of electronic interception orders averaged around 700 from 2011 to 2013, before rocketing last year.

The state’s 971 wiretap applications led to 480 arrests and 41 convictions. Only two of the applications by prosecutors were denied by judges.

Most of the arrests were for drugs. Riverside County accounted for 64.2% of the orders. Its 624 requests were four times as large as Los Angeles County and led to 176 arrests. Only 10 of the arrests were not for narcotics.

Statewide, 351 of the 482 arrests were for narcotics, followed by gangs (109) and murder (59).

State law requires the attorney general to provide an annual report on wiretaps and so that is what Attorney General and Democratic senatorial candidate Kamala Harris did. EFF says this law requires her to publish the information in the same format they store it. That would be something innocuous and accessible like Microsoft Word. The attorney general cites other laws about maintaining security.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Attorney General Locks Down Wiretap and Other Criminal Justice Data (by Dave Maass, Electronic Frontier Foundation)

California Is One of the Places to Be if You Want to Be Wiretapped (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

California Electronic Interceptions Report 2014 (Office of the California Attorney General) (pdf)

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