Microsoft is suing U.S. government for the right to tell its customers when a federal agency is looking at their emails
The latest in a series of clashes over privacy between the technology industry and Washington,
Microsoft Corp has sued the US government over the right to inform its customers when a federal agency is looking at their emails.
In the lawsuit filed in federal court in the Western District of Washington on Wednesday, Microsoft accuses the government of violating the US Constitution by preventing the tech giant from notifying thousands of customers about data requests for their emails and other documents.
Microsoft says in its suit that it received 5,624 federal demands for customer information in the past 18 months, and nearly half of them came with gag orders stopping the company from telling customers the government was looking at their data. Even though the company “always complies with legally binding orders,” it said that 1,752 of those secrecy orders had no time limit, so it might never be able to tell customers that the government obtained their digital files.
The government “seeks and executes warrants for electronic communications far more frequently than it sought and executed warrants for physical documents and communications—apparently because it believes it can search and seize those documents and communications under a veil of secrecy,” the suit alleges. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit.
It is unclear how often the government blocks tech companies from telling customers about requests for their data, since officials don’t disclose details of such requests.
However, the government’s actions not only violate First Amendment rights but also contravene the Fourth Amendment, which establishes the right for people to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”.
Microsoft alleges that federal agencies focuses on the storage of data on remote servers, rather than locally on people’s computers, which Microsoft says has provided a new opening for the government to access electronic data.
People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud,” Microsoft says in the lawsuit. It adds that the government “has exploited the transition to cloud computing as a means of expanding its power to conduct secret investigations.”
The US Justice Department has not commented on the lawsuit.
The move puts Microsoft on the front lines in the ongoing battle between technology companies and the government over how much businesses should help in government surveillance.
Apple has ruled the discussion in recent months after it refused an FBI request to crack an iPhone used by one of the terrorists involved in the San Bernardino attack.
Microsoft supported Apple’s position that co-operating with the government would turn businesses into arms of the state.
Separately on Thursday, a congressional panel said Apple and the FBI will resume testifying in their encryption dispute next week, despite the FBI dropping its suit against Apple after using a third-party hacker to unlock the phone.