Daily Management Review

US Government Sued by Microsoft over Data Requests


In what is being seen as the latest in a series of clashes over privacy between the technology industry and Washington, Microsoft Corp has sued the U.S. government for the right to tell its customers when a federal agency is looking at their emails.
By preventing Microsoft from notifying thousands of customers about government requests for their emails and other documents, the government is violating the U.S. Constitution, the tech company argued in a lawsuit that was filed on Thursday in federal court in Seattle.
The suit argues that Microsoft's First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourth Amendment, which establishes the right for people and businesses to know if the government searches or seizes their property are being violated by the government’s actions.
Spokeswoman Emily Pierce said that the Department of Justice is reviewing the filing.
The storage of data on remote servers which Microsoft says has provided a new opening for the government to access electronic data, says Microsoft’s suit, rather than locally on people's computers.
Microsoft says in the lawsuit that the government is increasingly directing investigations at the parties that store data in the so-called cloud using the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Technology companies and privacy advocates have long drawn scrutiny of the 30-year-old law and say it was written before the rise of the commercial Internet and is therefore outdated.
“People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud,” Microsoft says in the lawsuit. The government “has exploited the transition to cloud computing as a means of expanding its power to conduct secret investigations,” it adds.
In a battle that is dominated by Apple Inc in recent months due to the government’s efforts to get the company to write software to unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in a December massacre in San Bernardino, California, Microsoft is taking a more prominent role by filing the suit.
Apple had complained that cooperating would turn businesses into arms of the state and is backed by big technology companies including Microsoft.
"Just as Apple was the company in the last case and we stood with Apple, we expect other tech companies to stand with us," Microsoft's Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said in a phone interview to Reuters after the suit was filed.
However the motivation and timing of Microsoft's suit was questioned by a security expert. Its lawsuit was “one hundred percent motivated by business interests” and timed to capitalize on new interest in customer privacy issues spurred in part by Apple’s dispute, said D.J. Rosenthal, a former White House cyber security official in the Obama administration.
The company's cloud-based business is taking on more importance as Microsoft's Windows and other legacy software products are losing some traction in an increasingly mobile and Internet-centric computing environment. Chief Executive Satya Nadella's describes Microsoft's efforts as "mobile first, cloud first."