Microsoft successfully challenges FBI user info request

23 May 2014

Tech giant Microsoft has successfully challenged an FBI user information request because the company deemed it violated the user’s right to privacy as per the US Constitution.

Known as a National Security Letter (NSL), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had sent one of these requests to Microsoft towards the end of last year, demanding it hand over user information for a particular individual, according to a blog post from Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith.

In his blog, he highlighted documents that were uncovered indicating the request from the FBI, but Smith and Microsoft took umbrage with the request on a number of privacy and disclosure grounds.

Last December, Microsoft declared to customers the company would inform them if Microsoft had received account information requests on behalf of the government. The FBI included a non-disclosure provision in the request, which Microsoft felt not only challenged its previous declaration, but also challenged the US Constitution in terms of an individual’s right to privacy and right to freedom of expression.

After bringing this to the attention of the Federal Court of Seattle, the FBI felt it was in its best interest to withdraw the NSL.

Instances are rare

Smith reassured Microsoft customers that situations like this are quite rare.

“Fortunately, government requests for customer data belonging to enterprise customers are extremely rare. We therefore have seldom needed to litigate this type of issue. In those rare cases where we have received requests, we’ve succeeded in redirecting the government to obtain the information from the customer, or we have obtained permission from the customer to provide the data. We’re pleased with the outcome of this case, which validates our approach.”

Smith also believes that the issues raised in the US send a strong message to other international governments looking to follow a similar path.

“Having spent the first half of this week in Berlin and London, it’s apparent that government, business, and civil society leaders around the world are continuing to follow closely these issues in the United States. I often meet people in other countries who ask whether the courts in the United States will play a strong and independent role on government surveillance issues.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic