Microsoft Sues US over Secret Demands
TEHRAN (Tasnim) – Microsoft sued the US government for demanding access to user emails or other online files in secret, saying on Saturday that a provision of a 1986 law that authorities use for such undisclosed searches is totally unconstitutional.
The lawsuit is the latest clash over privacy rights in the digital age. Law enforcement officials want freedom to view a treasure trove of information – including emails, photos and financial records – that customers are storing on electronic gadgets and in so-called “cloud” computing centers.
Microsoft says the US Justice Department is abusing the decades-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows authorities to obtain court orders requiring it to turn over customer files stored on its servers, while in some cases prohibiting the company from notifying the customer. Microsoft says those “nondisclosure” orders violate its constitutional right to free speech, as well as its customers’ protection against unreasonable searches.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said the government is carefully reviewing the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in Seattle federal court, the Associated Press reported.
One former federal official was critical of Microsoft’s position, saying it could lead to warning “child molesters, domestic abusers, violent criminals and terrorists that they’re being investigated.”
The nondisclosure orders must be granted by a judge who has concluded that “notifying these individuals will have an adverse result, which could include messing up an investigation or even endangering the life or safety of individuals,” said Daniel “D.J.” Rosenthal, a former National Security Council and Justice Department attorney.
But Microsoft argues the law sets a vague standard for granting secrecy around digital searches. Authorities are required to disclose most search warrants for information stored in filing cabinets, safes or other physical locations, the company noted in its court filing.
“At the end of the day, when you are being investigated by the government, you should know about the investigation so you can prepare a defense,” said Mark Jaycox of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.
Microsoft said that government demands under the ECPA law are increasing in number for a variety of investigations, including white-collar cases.
“We appreciate that there are times when secrecy around a government warrant is needed,” Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith said in a statement.
“But based on the many secrecy orders we have received, we question whether these orders are grounded in specific facts that truly demand secrecy. To the contrary, it appears that the issuance of secrecy orders has become too routine.”