The Supreme Court agreed today to hear and rule whether the federal government can demand access to emails and other data files when they are stored in another country.
In United States v. Microsoft Corp., the Department of Justice has been trying since 2013 to get access to emails of a Microsoft customer, looking for evidence this person was involved in drug trafficking.
Some of the suspect's data was being stored on a server in Dublin, Ireland. Microsoft has turned over data stored within the United States, but argued, even with probable cause warrants, the feds did not have the authority to make them hand over foreign-stored info. Privacy advocacy groups, tech companies, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are on Microsoft's side here. The Department of Justice and 33 states (and Puerto Rico) are on the other.
Several court rulings have upheld Microsoft's argument, but the full 2nd Circuit Court ruling was split 4-4. This split keeps the ruling in Microsoft's favor, but there's a clear disagreement among judges about the limits of the authority of the Stored Communications Act—the 1986 federal law that oversees forced disclosures of data by third parties like tech companies.
The Justice Department, of course, went full 9/11, arguing limits to their warrant authorities would jeopardize terror investigations. Microsoft, meanwhile, worries about the reaction if the United States sets a bad example here. Via Reuters:
"If U.S. law enforcement can obtain the emails of foreigners stored outside the United States, what's to stop the government of another country from getting your emails even though they are located in the United States?" Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and chief legal officer, said in a blog post on Monday.
The Justice Department said in its appeal that the lower court ruling "gravely threatens public safety and national security" because it limits the government's ability to "ward off terrorism and similar national security threats and to investigate and prosecute crimes."
Reuters notes that tech companies are also concerned that customers may not trust the privacy cloud-based computing services if governments could seize their data.
The Justice Department, on the other hand, worries that companies would be able to deprive the government of access to domestic data and communications simply by storing it all overseas. That outcome, frankly, sounds kind of awesome.
This is a highly technical case that will probably produce a fairly specific ruling about Congress' intent with the Stored Communications Act and the limits of what that law authorizes. Do not expect a broad ruling about the either the limits of warrants under the Fourth Amendment nor a revised view of the limits of the Third-Party Doctrine that allows the government to access data about private citizens that is stored by tech companies and private firms.
Read the Justice Department's petition here.