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The federal courthouse for the Western District of Washington. (GeekWire.com / Monica Nickelsburg)

Privacy advocates are celebrating an agreement reached between U.S. attorneys, a federal court in Seattle, and the local newspaper The Stranger over digital surveillance.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington has agreed to track and report instances when law enforcement agencies access digital data, such as email and phone records, without a warrant.

Starting in 2020, the court will issue reports every six months that reveal how often investigators access these digital records, which require permission from the court but don’t need the formality of a warrant. In the past, those records have been kept secret, making it difficult for watchdogs and journalists to get a clear picture of how often law enforcement accesses online data about civilians.

“There’s a series of statues that allow law enforcement to gain access to certain information, such as who we call and when, our location information, our social graphs, basic information about when we created an account with a particular service and that sort of thing,” said Aaron Mackey an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy nonprofit that helped The Stranger with its petition. “That can reveal intensely personal details about our lives even if they’re not getting access to the content of our messages.”

The new reports will provide case numbers and information about the crimes being investigated but will protect the names and identities of the people surveilled. Those details could be accessed through a request to unseal them, however. The agreement was modeled after a similar deal reached with a federal court in Washington D.C.

Microsoft has made transparency into these types of requests a key issue, even suing the federal government over gag orders that prevent tech companies from informing their customers when investigators seek access to data.

“This is a positive step and we hope that courts around the country will follow the example of the federal courts in the Western District of Washington and the District of Columbia,” a Microsoft spokesperson said. “We’ve made similar data available to Microsoft customers through our semiannual transparency reports for a long time, and sued the government to provide more information to the public. Transparency only enhances public confidence in our institutions and in law enforcement.”

The agreement only applies to the Western Washington District Court and U.S. attorneys in that district but privacy advocates hope it will become a model for other jurisdictions.

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