Microsoft vs. the Department of Justice.

The unexpected corporation fighting for American’s privacy rights

By Leah Ching, Staff Writer

PC: Robert Scobble/ Flickr

PC: Robert Scobble/ Flickr

Multinational technology giant Microsoft is currently entangled with the United States Department of Justice. In a case regarding the email privacy of its clients, Microsoft is fighting back against the Department of Justice’s search warrant seeking access to emails stored on a Microsoft server in Ireland.

Microsoft’s battle is an ongoing one, and the mega-corporation has lost the appeal on two lower court decisions, and is now in its third round of arguing its case to the U.S. Court of Appeals. At the crux of Microsoft’s argument is that the Department of Justice does not have the authority to request a search warrant, because the data lies in Dublin’s data centre. Microsoft argues that if the DoJ insists its search warrants extend to overseas, the government agency can open the door to data searches in the United States from other governments.

This case raises questions in the United States and beyond about the scope of law enforcement in regards to the public’s data privacy. Microsoft has gathered support from Amazon, Apple, AT&T, eBay, several citizens’ rights groups, and an impressive number of computer science professors and intellectuals. Whatever the outcome, this case will be landmark decision in the emerging and extremely important realm of online privacy in the United States. This precedent has the potential to affect not only the United States, but governments and citizens worldwide.

A question on the mind of many is why the United States courts continue to rule against Microsoft despite widespread public opinion that their decision marks a clear erosion of democracy in the States. The DoJ is asserting power on law enforcement within a foreign and sovereign country, but without proper thought to how their actions will influence international relations, and will happen when the same is done to them.

As issue is the Stored Communications Act of 1986, an antiquated communications law which Microsoft says “couldn’t possibly have anticipated cloud storage, in which data is meted out across servers all over the globe to reduce costs and increase speed.” The United States is basing the crux of their legal argument on a communications act that came into being before the onset of the Internet age. Two senators, Chris Coons and Dean Heller have co-sponsored the “Law Enforcement Access to Data Stored Abroad (Leads) Act,” a bill that would provide guidelines to dealing with circumstances similar to the case being litigated. To both Coons and Heller, no one in 1986 could have anticipated cloud computing revolutionizing communications and technology in the way it did. They assert that many laws have needed to be reworked in the interest of the public, and the 1986 act is no exception.

The DoJ stands by their argument that because Microsoft is an American corporation headquartered in Washington, all data controlled in any of their facilities can be subpoenaed lawfully.

The case draws stark similarities to a case in 2013 when whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed the shady practices of the National Security Agency when it came to unlawful surveillance on phone and internet communications of citizens. Many were upset when it was revealed that their government was taking advantage of the fact that communications companies were headquartered in the States, but stored data globally. If anything is for sure when it comes to the interconnected Snowden and Microsoft cases, it’s that these developments, and the decision to come, will influence the balance in the United States between government power and personal privacy.

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