Microsoft Gains Allies Against US Data Demands - InformationWeek

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12/15/2014
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Microsoft Gains Allies Against US Data Demands

Several dozen companies, trade groups, and computer scientists agree that Microsoft should not have to provide data stored in Ireland when presented with a US search warrant.

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Microsoft on Monday welcomed new allies in its fight to avoid surrendering customer email stored in Ireland to federal prosecutors in the United States.

Ten legal briefs were filed with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of 28 technology and media companies, 35 computer scientists, and 23 trade and advocacy organizations. The amicus briefs argue that the US government should not be able to use a US search warrant to demand that Microsoft produce data stored abroad.

A negative outcome of the case could undermine cloud computing services, something the technology industry has struggled to reinforce following the disclosures last year arising from documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Businesses and individuals will be reluctant to use cloud computing services if any government can demand data in any other country.

In December 2013, federal prosecutors asked for a search warrant to obtain the contents and the metadata of a Microsoft user account, pursuant to a narcotics investigation. The metadata was stored in the US, but the contents of the messages were stored in Dublin, Ireland. Microsoft refused to turn over the contents of the messages, arguing US authorities have no jurisdiction over data stored abroad

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In April 2014, a federal judge disagreed and ordered Microsoft to turn over the emails. Microsoft then appealed to a New York district court and was denied again. The company's latest appeal brings the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, one level below the Supreme Court.

Given that the Supreme Court agrees to consider less than 1% of appeals, Circuit Court decisions tend to set legal precedents.

Microsoft and companies that have joined its case in support -- including Apple, Amazon, AT&T, Cisco, Salesforce, HP, eBay, Infor, Rackspace, and Verizon -- believe that the US government should rely on established legal practice rather than attempt to enforce US law in a foreign country.

"We believe that when one government wants to obtain email that is stored in another country, it needs to do so in a manner that respects existing domestic and international laws," said Brad Smith, general counsel and EVP of legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft, in a blog post. "In contrast, the U.S. Government's unilateral use of a search warrant to reach email in another country puts both fundamental privacy rights and cordial international relations at risk."

In its legal filing, Microsoft argues that if the US government can demand data from a US company no matter where that data is located, the US will have no grounds to object when foreign governments raid Microsoft offices abroad and order employees to download data that Microsoft has stored in the US.

"The DOJ in effect challenges people's ability around the world to rely on the privacy protections of their own governments and laws," said Smith.

Microsoft is fighting for the right to retain access to data stored on its servers without providing that data on demand. A loss could mean that the only viable option for cloud computing companies is to adopt a zero-knowledge policy -- to be unable to unlock customer data in the cloud, a stance Apple and Google have already taken for data on mobile phones. 

From a security standpoint, this might be ideal for many cloud computing customers, but it would challenge cloud computing companies that rely on data access for sharing and for revenue.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
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12/15/2014 | 6:38:29 PM
Re: Data protected overseas? Expect a massive migration toward EU cloud facilities.
Ultimately, we will either have to have a treaty that normalizes law enforcement access across borders or zero-knowledge encryption all the time will be the only option.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
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12/15/2014 | 6:13:29 PM
Data protected overseas? Expect a massive migration toward EU cloud facilities.
If technology companies succeed in establishing data non-access protection overseas but not the U.S., we will have shoot the cloud industry in the foot at a very young age. Understood, the legal argument is more persuasive when it addresses storage in Ireland. I'm just not sure this is the right precedent to establish. Let's reform our own house.
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