The protection of criminal justice technologies with trade secrets is a hot topic. Last Term, the Supreme Court called for the views of the solicitor general in Loomis v. Wisconsin on whether using proprietary software for sentencing is a due process violation, though they ultimately denied the cert petition. Last month, I described Natalie Ram's forthcoming article, which focuses on the innovation angle: Ram argues that trade secrecy protection is not necessary for efficient levels of innovation for these kinds of technologies. I just enjoyed another terrific article in this space by Yale Information Society Project Fellow Rebecca Wexler: Life, Liberty, and Trade Secrets: Intellectual Property in the Criminal Justice System, forthcoming in the Stanford Law Review.
Wexler describes the growing privatization of the criminal justice system, particularly through black-box algorithms. She explains that the importance of trade secrecy in this area is likely to grow: data-driven systems for forensics or risk assessment are more difficult to protect with patents post-Alice, whereas trends like the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 seem to have strengthened the value of trade secrets. Wexler agrees that the innovation policy rationale for secrecy of criminal justice technologies is unconvincing and that this secrecy may raise due process concerns, but the focus of her article is on the problems with this trend as a matter of the law of evidence. She argues that the trade secrets privilege that two-thirds of states have codified in their evidence rules should not exist in criminal proceedings—rather, as for other sensitive information like medical records, courts should simply use protective orders to limit the distribution of trade secrets beyond the needs of the proceeding.
Since I am not an evidence law expert, I will not discuss these aspects of Wexler's argument in detail; in short, she explains that the trade secrets privilege is harmful and unnecessary in criminal cases, and that it does not serve the purpose of evidentiary privilege law. From an IP perspective, she also argues that none of the theoretical justifications for trade secrecy law support the privilege. She suggests that the privilege is most analogous to the controversial "inevitable disclosure" doctrine, under which some states will enjoin conduct based on a speculative concern rather than any direct evidence of threatened misappropriation. But even here, the trade secrets privilege doctrine overprotects because it is upheld without any reference to the circumstances of a particular case. Wexler also notes that "claims that secrecy will incentivize innovation are tenuous at best when the privilege shields information from criminal defendants who are unlikely to be business competitors." And despite the status quo of robust protection, a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report notes the "dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and validity of many forensic methods"; as Wexler explains, greater transparency is likely to improve rather than worsen this problem.
I think there is plenty in Wexler's article to interest scholars of IP, criminal procedure, evidence, and more. But more importantly, I hope it is read by judges in criminal cases who are faced with assertions of trade secrets privilege. And judges will have opportunities since the issue is percolating through the courts in other cases, such as California v. Johnson; see the defense attorney's brief (which cites Wexler's article), as well as amicus briefs from the ACLU, EFF, Legal Aid, and Innocence Project. It seems like it is time for the uncritical acceptance of the privilege to end, and for judges and practitioners to grapple with the concerns Wexler raises.