Microsoft is suing the US government over what it says is the unconstitutional manner in which federal law enforcement agencies can forbid tech companies from informing customers that their personal data held by Microsoft is being examined.
The Redstone based company is arguing that having to keep access requests secret is against the US constitution, which states implacably that individuals have the right to know if the government searches or seizes their property. Microsoft are arguing that personal data falls under this remit.
“This morning we filed a new lawsuit in federal court against the United States government to stand up for what we believe are our customers’ constitutional and fundamental rights – rights that help protect privacy and promote free expression. This is not a decision we made lightly, and hence we wanted to share information on this step and why we are taking it”; – said Brad Smith, Microsoft President, and chief legal officer in blog post published on Thursday.
The blog post highlighted the fact that 5,624 requests for data had been made in the last 18 months from US Government authorities, and that almost half of these had come with a court order that compelled the company to keep the demand secret.
The software giant filed their case in US federal court, Thursday, with the hope of striking down the key legal mechanism currently used in the US that can force companies to turn over data but effectively gags them, from informing their customers. The blog post continued:
“The urgency for action is clear and growing. Over the past 18 months, the U.S. government has required that we maintain secrecy regarding 2,576 legal demands, effectively silencing Microsoft from speaking to customers about warrants or other legal process seeking their data. Notably and even surprisingly, 1,752 of these secrecy orders, or 68 percent of the total, contained no fixed end date at all. This means that we effectively are prohibited forever from telling our customers that the government has obtained their data.”
The key mechanism used by law enforcement agencies are the use of ‘national security letters,’ that were introduced with the often cited Patriot Act that was introduced in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11.
National security letters don’t themselves require a court order and can be issued by the FBI, apparently on a whim. It was revealed last year that companies have no option but to turn over complete browser usage histories, and also the IP addresses of anyone the individuals in question had correspondence with, cell site information, and also any and all online purchases made in the last year.
“Ultimately, we view this case as similar to the other three that we have filed. It involves the fundamental right of people and businesses to know when the government is accessing their content and our right to share this information with them,” Brad Smith concluded.