Microsoft sues US government over data snooping requests

15 Apr 2016

Land of the not-so-free? Microsoft is taking on the US government for riding roughshod over its users' rights to privacy

Microsoft’s data centres in Ireland could be back in the eye of the storm as the software giant sues the US government over secret requests to seize emails.

Specifically, Microsoft is seeking the right to tell its customers when a federal agency is looking at their emails.

The lawsuit, filed in a Seattle federal court, argues that the US government is violating the Fourth Amendment by preventing the tech giant from notifying its customers about government requests for their emails and other documents.

‘People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud’

It says the US government’s actions also contravene the First Amendment right to free speech.

It also says that the gag order statute in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 is unconstitutional.

Microsoft claims that 5,624 requests for data were made in the last 18 months and almost half came with a court order instructing Microsoft to keep the demand a secret.

“Notably and even surprisingly, 1,752 of these secrecy orders, or 68pc of the total, contained no fixed end date at all. This means that we effectively are prohibited forever from telling our customers that the government has obtained their data,” Microsoft said.

It also claims that the US government exploited the transition to cloud computing as a way of expanding its ability to conduct secret investigations.

“People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud,” Microsoft said in the suit.

Transatlantic data privacy debate

In recent years, Microsoft’s data centres in Dublin were embroiled in a battle between Microsoft and the US government over a search warrant to access data stored on Irish soil.

For the third time in the history of the Irish State, an amicus curiae brief was filed by the Irish Government siding with Microsoft over the right of individuals to protect their personal data.

Earlier this week, Microsoft became the first US multinational to endorse the EU-US Privacy Shield framework, which was devised earlier this year after Safe Harbour was declared invalid by the European Court of Justice following cases taken by Max Schrems and revelations of NSA snooping by Edward Snowden.

“In a time when business and communications increasingly depend on the transmission of personal data across borders, no one should give up their privacy rights simply because their information is stored in electronic form or their technology service provider transfers it to another country,” Microsoft vice-president of EU Government Affairs John Frank said earlier this week.

Main image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years