Rodney Joffe’s De-Censored Complaint v Neustar about Bulk DNS Sales, Alfa Bank and Trump

Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick, a judge in Delaware, has ordered a previously heavily redacted court document to largely be made public, partly at my request. It is a complaint that Rodney Joffe filed against his former company, Neustar, in a lawsuit over whether Neustar has to pay his legal bills for matters arising from his role in the suspicions developed in 2016 by a group of cybersecurity experts about odd internet data they said could be a sign of a clandestine communications channel between someone associated with the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Kremlin-linked financial institution. Neustar sold large amounts of so-called DNS data to Georgia Tech, where two of those data scientists worked, in connection with that effort and a larger project of mining DNS data for insights into malicious activities online.

I don’t see a stand-alone news story here but there are some interesting details so I will post it for any who want to read. Among other things, it shows that Neustar established a subsidiary called ERP Services to handle sensitive government contracts.

My thanks to Samantha Hamilton, the New York Times’ First Amendment Fellow, for assisting me in writing to the court to ask for it to be released. Apparently a Wall Street Journal reporter also made that request. I was not in the court when Chancellor McCormick ruled, but the anonymous person behind a Twitter account that follows the Delaware Court of Chancery, @chancery_daily, reported that she ruled from the bench, saying that the “public’s right of access is fact fundamental” and most of the document did not meet legal standards for redaction. Thanks to that person as well.

The Alfa Bank suspicions were a sideshow to the FBI’s pre-existing investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia, which later evolved into the Robert Mueller investigation. They got new attention when the Trump-era special counsel, John Durham, indicted Joffe’s lawyer, Michael Sussmann, on an accusation that he had lied to the F.B.I. when relaying the tip; Sussmann was acquitted.

Aside from the political swirl surrounding Trump and Durham, the episode also served to focus broader attention on the fact that DNS data — essentially, a record of when a computer has prepared to connect with another computer over the internet — existed as a thing that can reveal private information about web browsing and communications and that is largely unregulated. In December, Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who is deeply interested in surveillance and privacy issues like bulk data sales, sent a letter to the FTC focused on some of Neustar’s practices.