Microsoft Case Over Email Privacy to be Heard by Supreme Court

On Tuesday, Supreme Court justices will hear arguments in a case involving digital privacy that could result in broad global consequences.

The court, in the case United States v. Microsoft Corp, will decide if a provider of digital communications must comply with a search warrant in the U.S. for user data if that information is stored outside the U.S.

The stakes in this case are very high, said an attorney and it will set the tone for data demands that are cross border.

This started in 2013, when prosecutors served a warrant on Microsoft for emails and data associated with an account that was involved in the investigation of a drug-trafficking ring. Microsoft handed over data stored on U.S. servers, but some data that was stored in Ireland on a server there, was not handed over by Microsoft.

The warrant was approved initially by a judge in a lower court, but the Court of Appeals rejected the warrant siding with Microsoft. Now it will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court to make a decision on the case.

Microsoft argues that law enforcement in the U.S. should not have access to digital communications that are stored on servers that are not located in the U.S.

The top lawyer for Microsoft and its president Brady Smith, has said allowing officials from the U.S. to seize emails that are stored overseas would ignore international law, treaties and borders. He added that, that move could put emails of Americans at risk of being seized by foreign governments here in the U.S.

Microsoft argues the legislation relied upon by the government, the Stores Communication Act of 1986, is far too old as well as being outdated to apply to today’s internet infrastructure or with cloud computing.

Microsoft, Google, Apple as well as other service providers, have their data stored in servers across the globe that contain information from the world’s population.

Law enforcement as well as the Department of Justice argue Microsoft and other tech companies only harm criminal investigations through their refusal to hand over data. U.S. government attorneys argue the location of the information should not matter, if it is easily accessible domestically by just clicking a mouse.

Some legal experts have said that the issue should not be decided in court. They believe the U.S. Congress needs to step in, to update the law.

Lawmakers are attempting to find a better solution, as a bipartisan group of senators introduced recently the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act that would allow countries to enter agreements with the U.S. allowing for cross border access.