Microsoft Sues Federal Government: Tech Title Fight

By Allyana Belen,
Domestic News Writer

Microsoft has decided to take a stand against the federal government, claiming that the government has been violating the constitution through its repeated and continued practice of looking at the data of Microsoft consumers.

In addition, they claim that the federal government prevented their company from informing their clients about the government’s accessing of the clients’ personal information.

This has shined a spotlight on the debate of what electronic data is protected by the United States Constitution as well as whether or not individuals should be informed that the government has been granted permission to access their online personal data including emails and cloud storage.

On the other hand, these actions by agents of the federal government were granted approval by federal judges in 2600 cases. Out of the 2600 cases, around 1700 cases have the stipulation that the customers, whose information was searched and analyzed by federal agents, can never be told about the search. Even a number of years after the search Microsoft is not allowed to tell these customers, due to the fact that these judicial decisions bear no expiration date.

The following quotation is a statement directly taken from Microsoft’s lawsuit, as documented by CNN News,“Microsoft brings this case because its customers have a right to know when the government obtains a warrant to read their emails, and because Microsoft has a right to tell them.”

It is important to know that this statement expands upon the term, client data, and directly reveals that the government has been accessing customer emails and any data uploaded to the Microsoft’s cloud data storage. Furthermore, the statement clarifies what the lawsuit is based on. Microsoft is fighting for the ability to tell their customers when the federal government has had permission to access any of their Microsoft-related applications.

In 1986, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act was enacted, its overall purpose is to protect certain forms of electronic communication from being accessed by the federal government with proper authorization. The question now centers on the meaning of “proper authorization”. From Microsoft’s perspective, “proper authorization” is more than just a federal court order; it is the informing of these individuals that their information will be accessed, and perhaps, more importantly, for what reason is their information being accessed.

It is common knowledge that in order for police to search through someone’s home, they must obtain a warrant prior to the search. With Microsoft’s lawsuit, they argue that this practice should be expanded to include electronic communication and other forms of personal electronic data, has arisen.

Attorney Alex Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union makes the following statement regarding the lawsuit which was quoted by CNN News, “One of the most basic promises of our Constitution is that the government must notify you when it infringes your rights. For years, the government has skirted that obligation by seeking sensitive data from tech companies without providing notice.”

Attorney Abdo indicates that the government has not only performed enabled this practice with Microsoft but also with other technological companies and that a search through electronic data is so easy for federal agents to perform without anyone knowing.

And these so-called “basic promises of our Constitution” can be related back to the Fourth Amendment which provides American citizens with protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The agents of the federal government do have the opportunity to utilize a loophole known as the “third-party doctrine.” If an individual allows access to a third party of their personal online data, then the federal government can access this information without contest.

This loophole could apply to emails and other forms of social media. But the question remains if this loophole applies to cloud storage.

In fact, Microsoft specifically highlights cloud storage access in its lawsuit, as documented by Reuters,“People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud…[the federal government] has exploited the transition to cloud computing as a means of expanding its power to conduct secret investigations.”

Therefore, this debate over what online data is protected under the Constitution boasts complexity. On one hand, technology has made information more accessible and, in some domains, public.

While, the other camp complains that online storage is not a public domain and is utilized by individuals for private, protected storage of information. Moreover, Microsoft’s lawsuit indicates the need for clarity within US legislation regarding the need for federal agents and police officers to inform those individuals whose online information they have accessed in relation to an on-going investigation as in the case of home searches.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 26th print edition.

Contact Allyana at
mariaallyana.belen@student.shu.edu

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