Microsoft Sues Obama Administration Over Unconstitutional Cloud Data Searches

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The Obama administration is once again in court against a major tech company.

This time it’s Microsoft that has filed a federal suit claiming the Justice Department is performing “unconstitutional” searched of user data and forcing the company to remain silent when the data is searched.

“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,” the complaint, filed today in a Washington District Court reads. “As Microsoft’s customers increasingly store their most private and sensitive information in the cloud, the government increasingly seeks (and obtains) secrecy orders.”

According to The Verge:

In today’s complaint, Microsoft says that Section 2705(b) of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act “sweeps too broadly” and simply gives the government too much power in gagging companies as it pursues investigations and alleged criminal activity. And indeed, the numbers seem rather startling. “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.

Perhaps even more concerning is that over two-thirds of those orders “contained no fixed end date,” at worst making them permanent, and at best giving Microsoft no clear idea of when it can be transparent with affected customers. In all, between September 2014 and last month Microsoft received 5,624 demands for customer “information or data” from the federal government.

Here’s straight from the filing:

The vast majority of these secrecy orders related to consumer accounts and prevent Microsoft from telling affected individuals about the government’s intrusion into their personal affairs; others prevent Microsoft from telling business customers that the government has searched and seized the emails of individual employees of the customer.

One of Microsoft’s primary complaints is that, in addition to not notifying people their data is being seized, the orders require no further review to stay in place, leaving the government open to check on that data in perpetuity and without judicial oversight:

Under the statute, the assessment of adverse consequences need not be based on the specific facts of the investigation, and the assessment is made only at the time the government applies for the secrecy order, with no obligation on the government to later justify continued restraints on speech even if circumstances change because, for instance, the investigation is closed or the subject learns of it by other means.

Microsoft is asking the court to “declare that Section 2705(b) is unconstitutional on its face,” something that would significantly alter the balance of power from the authorities seeking easy access to data to the companies storing the private data of hundreds of millions of people.

This is just the latest battle between authorities and tech companies, with the FBI backing down from it’s lawsuit against Apple, something many people said was done out of fear of setting a precedent for tech companies to refuse orders for data.

You can read the entire ruling here:

Microsoft court filing by Chris Welch