Unsealing vs Revealing Hidden Data
Things you find in the basement of a courthouse
There was a big huff when fans of Johnny Depp paid to unseal files from the trial between him and Amber Heard. It turns out that the sealed files weren’t very flattering to either party in the case. Clearly, “sealing” the file didn’t do much to actually protect the information from being released.
A few years ago, I found myself in the basement of the Newmarket Court north of Toronto at the records office, doing a favor for a gutsy family lawyer on a divorce file. She was looking for precedent to use in a file she was working on and I was requesting several records.
The filing office looked like many government service centers. You took a number, sat in a crowded room on a bench, and clerks served you from stalls. The room had a low ceiling and was lit with bright fluorescent lights. I’m sure this contributed to the amazing mood of the clerks who had to sit down there all day.
My number was called and I requested the file. A few minutes later, the clerk returned with a box and I sat to the side, going through the ample volumes of exhibits and taking photos with my phone. What was overwhelming was information that was readily available to me. I found pet names, psychologist reports, unredacted bank statements, and potentially embarrassing information about both parties in the litigation with very little effort. This information was now publicly available to me as the parties had engaged the court to resolve their personal matter.
However, this information wasn’t searchable. It wasn’t possible to go to the court’s website and look up this information. The barrier to the information was knowing where it might be stored and going through the hassle of waiting in line at the courthouse and winning the favor of the clerks.
There is a significant amount of useful information that is stored this way around the world. Government filings, libraries, and places where many other places where files haven’t been digitized are a wellspring of data and a ripe opportunity for anyone with a scanner and some patience to create a service. This data is also the key to finding trends and patterns that can be used to avoid costly problems in the future.