Microsoft sued the U.S. government on Thursday, over a federal law that lets authorities examine its customer data stored in its computer centres, often without the individual’s knowledge.
It’s the latest in a series of legal challenges between the tech industry and Justice Department over individual privacy rights. Apple recently fought a high-profile battle over the FBI’s order to unlock an encryption measure on an iPhone connected to the San Bernardino mass shooting.
Other tech companies including Facebook, Google, and Yahoo have started encrypting their data. These organizations have also demanded the right to report how frequently authorities demand customer information under national security laws, after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures about data collection efforts by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Businesses and also people are increasingly storing their data including emails, photos and financial records with Internet services owned by Google, Apple, and other companies. The shift has outweighed laws that control law-enforcement access to electronic communications.
Microsoft’s case, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle says that the U.S. Justice Department is exploiting the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows law enforcement officials to obtain court orders requiring it to hand over customer files stored in the cloud while in some cases preventing the company from notifying the customer involved.
The company argues that the non-disclosure orders are being used in a way that violates its constitutional right to free speech, as well as its customers' protection against inordinate searches and seizures.
When law enforcement officials get a warrant to view the treasure trove of information stored online, they can request a court order to prevent Internet service providers from notifying the user their documents were seized. The Redmond company said it has received almost 5,600 federal demands for customer information in the last 18 months, almost half of which came along with such gag orders.
The lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act violates users' Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches its First Amendment rights to communicate with customers about the official warrant.
According to the department's spokeswoman, the government was reviewing the filing and said that the government believes such orders are necessary so that the subjects do not change their behavior if informed about the investigations.
This is the company’s fourth lawsuit against the federal government over digital privacy since Edward Snowden’s disclosures. Microsoft is keen to reassure customers, and especially the businesses the company relies on for most of its sales, which may be concerned about unreasonable intrusion into their data.