Microsoft, US Government Clash Over Secret Customer Data Requests

Microsoft Corp is suing the U.S. government over a federal law that lets authorities examine its users’ email or online files without their knowledge. The company wants the right to let its customers know when a federal agency is examining their emails.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in a Seattle federal court, the government is violating the constitutional right of customers by preventing Microsoft from notifying them about the thousands of requests for their documents and emails. The Department of Justice frequently issues indefinite gag orders that block companies from telling customers, and Microsoft argues the requests are excessive and too secretive.

The main thrust of the suit is the storage of data on remote servers, rather than on individual computers, which has provided a way for the government to gain access to electronic data. Microsoft argues that a Electronic Communications Privacy Act statute allowing secret searches violates both the First and Fourth Amendments, and is also unconstitutional.

The text of the federal suit reads:

Over the past 18 months, federal courts have issued nearly 2,600 secrecy orders silencing Microsoft from speaking about warrants and other legal process seeking Microsoft customers’ data; of those, more than two-thirds contained no fixed end date. (In fact, of the twenty-five secrecy orders issued to Microsoft by judges in this District, none contained a time limit.) These twin developments—the increase in government demands for online data and the simultaneous increase in secrecy—have combined to undermine confidence in the privacy of the cloud and have impaired Microsoft’s right to be transparent with its customers, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

“People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud,” Microsoft said in the lawsuit.