Ruling Against Microsoft Raises E-Mail Privacy Concern
Microsoft has been ordered to hand over e-mails to law enforcers in the United States as part of a criminal investigation.
Although details of the investigation haven't been disclosed, it's a setback for the software giant, which was fighting a U.S. government warrant demanding access to e-mails stored in Microsoft's Dublin, Ireland-based data center.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska said Microsoft must hand over the data, despite the fact that it's stored outside of U.S. jurisdiction. The order won't go into effect right away, though, meaning that Microsoft has time to appeal to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
When we reached Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, he called Preska's decision "a dangerous ruling," adding that it could lead to more far-ranging requests by authorities in other countries.
"These countries were supposed to have statutory protection regarding their e-mails," Fakhoury said. "It seems like the law is being rewritten on the fly."
Last year during a drug investigation, the U.S. government had applied for a search warrant for e-mails belonging to a user of Microsoft's MSN.com e-mail service. Microsoft refused, saying the U.S. couldn't issue a search warrant outside its jurisdiction and that it should instead seek the data via its mutual legal assistance treaty with Ireland.
Microsoft had appealed a magistrate's ruling in April that it must turn over the data. In upholding that decision, Preska agreed that the pertinent question was over control of the data, not the location of it.
In arguing the ruling, Microsoft appeals to its right against unreasonable search and seizure.
Brad Smith, general counsel for Microsoft, said this week in a blog post that the court's decision "(will) not represent the final step in this process....We will appeal promptly and continue to advocate that people's email deserves strong privacy protection in the US and around the world."
During the hearing, Microsoft said the law does not permit warrants to be executed overseas, classifying the bid for Microsoft's customer e-mails a grab at "extraordinary power."
The ruling comes at a time when U.S. courts are wrestling with the issue of privacy concerns around personal data. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that police officers need a warrant to search an arrested suspect's cellphone, noting that the data on mobile devices is regarded as personal property.
Judges have been divided on the issue of what role search warrants should play when prosecutors want to seize e-mails from providers.
Microsoft was supported in the court case by AT&T, Verizon and other wireless providers. It also has the backing of Apple, Cisco, Verizon and other tech companies.
If Microsoft loses its appeal, those and other tech giants could be forced to hand over customer data stored overseas.
"Those companies have stated that they're worried about data they have stored abroad," Fakhoury said.