US government loses appeal to seize data on Microsoft servers in Ireland

25 Jan 2017

Microsoft is by no means out of the woods yet, and the case may find its way to the US supreme court or Congress. Image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

A US appeals court has upheld a verdict that bars the US government from forcing Microsoft to hand over emails stored on servers at its data centres in Dublin.

An equally divided federal appeals court in New York voted 4-4, with three judges recusing themselves from the decision, refusing to reconsider an appeal that forbids the US government from forcing Microsoft to turn over emails stored on servers outside the US.

The decision upholds a 14 July decision that was seen as a victory for Microsoft and privacy advocates.

However, dissenting judges have pointed out that this may not be the end of the road for the case, and are calling on the US supreme court or Congress to reverse the decision.

The first skirmish in a long-running battle over privacy

For more than three years, Microsoft has been battling a user information request from the FBI because it believes it violates users’ rights to privacy under the US constitution.

The case related to a drug trafficking investigation and stemmed from a warrant a judge issued in December 2013. The emails in question are stored on a server in Dublin.

The issue became a sort of cause célèbre for the cloud industry, and more than 28 tech and media companies (including players like Apple, Cisco, Salesforce, HP, eBay and Rackspace), 35 computer scientists and 23 trade associations got behind Microsoft.

In December 2014, the Irish Government waded into the battle to issue an amicus curiae brief in the US to defend the privacy of Irish and European citizens.

Even though the 14 July decision has been upheld, Microsoft is not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.

The case threatens to have ramifications for the international data industry and countries like Ireland that have built up substantial data-centric industries.

And, if the case does find its way to the US supreme court or Congress, under the new Trump administration, it is hard to imagine any sympathy being extended towards overseas operations of US companies.

In Dublin, there are more than 30 data centres in action, with the majority of them owned by US companies, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

This could be just the tip of the iceberg.

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