WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, Congressman Warren Davidson (R-OH) and Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D-CA) introduced the House version of legislation that will require public reporting and notice of the hundreds of thousands of criminal surveillance orders issued by courts each year. The bill, which was introduced in the Senate by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT), will add transparency to the government-ordered surveillance of people’s emails, location, web browsing records, and other digital information.

Americans who are the targets of phone wiretaps or bank record subpoenas must eventually be notified by the government of that surveillance, but the government is not required to notify targets of certain electronic surveillance. Hundreds of thousands of criminal surveillance orders are issued by courts each year and those orders can be sealed indefinitely. By keeping government surveillance hidden for years, even when the targets are never charged with any crime, subjects may never know they were surveilled. 

“This bill reaffirms our duty to protect the privacy of American citizens and limits the government from accessing information without their knowledge,” Rep. Davidson said.

“We must ensure our laws keep up with rapidly changing technology to protect the privacy of American citizens,” Rep. Lieu said. “Americans have a right to know if their emails or other digital information have been obtained by the government. The Government Surveillance Transparency Act ensures the government can’t hide surveillance data forever by ending the practice of years-long sealing and gag orders. I’m grateful to my colleagues in the House and Senate for their partnership on this bipartisan legislation to increase transparency and protect Americans’ data privacy.”
When the government obtains someone’s emails or other digital information, users have a right to know,” Sen. Wyden said. “Our bill ensures that no investigation will be compromised, but makes sure the government can’t hide surveillance forever by misusing sealing and gag orders to prevent the American people from understanding the enormous scale of government surveillance, as well as ensuring that the targets eventually learn their personal information has been searched.”
“It’s simple—Montanans have a Constitutional right to know if their personal information has been searched or seized or if they’re being investigated by the government,” Sen. Daines said. “We must increase transparency regarding government surveillance while maintaining the integrity of investigations.” 

The legislation has been endorsed by: Access Now, Americans for Prosperity, Brennan Center for Justice, Center for Democracy & Technology, Color of Change, Demand Progress, DuckDuckGo, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Fix The Court, Free Law Project, FreedomWorks, Open Technology Institute, Project on Government Oversight, Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Salesforce.
The bill has also been endorsed by the following individuals: Retired Federal Magistrate Judge Stephen Wm. Smith, Retired Federal Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal, and Seamus Hughes, member of the Electronic Public Access Public User Group.  

The Government Surveillance Transparency Act: 

  • Requires law enforcement to eventually notify targets about subpoenas and court-ordered surveillance of their electronic data, similar to existing rules for wiretaps and bank subpoenas.
  • Reforms indefinite “gag” orders to providers. Shifts to non-disclosure orders for court-ordered surveillance and subpoenas that last 180 days, which can be renewed if necessary.
  • Explicitly permits providers and other interested parties to challenge sealing and gag orders, and require the government to pay the challenger’s costs and legal fees if the government loses.
  • Requires that surveillance applications and orders eventually be unsealed and docketed so they are available to the public and press, once it will no longer disrupt an investigation or put individuals at risk of harm. Permits courts to redact sensitive information from these documents.
  • Requires courts to publish online basic data about every surveillance order they authorize. This will not reveal the target’s name or other information that could disrupt an active investigation.
  • Requires that law enforcement notify courts if they search the wrong person, house, or device pursuant to an order issued by the court or if a provider discloses data not authorized by the court.
  • Requires the Administrative Office of the Courts to expand the annual wiretap reports to include data on the surveillance of stored communications, interception of metadata, and gag orders.
  • Provides grants to State and Tribal courts to implement the requirements of the bill.