Apple Joins Microsoft in Opposing U.S. Government’s Global Data Grab

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has joined a growing list of tech companies that are backing Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) stand against the government’s attempt to force the tech company to turn over data that is stored on its servers located in Ireland, reports GigaOM. Apple, along with AT&T (NYSE:T), Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), and Verizon (NYSE:VZ), have all filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in support of Microsoft’s opposition to a government warrant that the companies fear could set a legal precedent that will harm their overseas business dealings.

Earlier this year, the government served a search warrant to Microsoft in order to acquire the emails of a customer whose data is stored on one of the company’s servers in Ireland, reports Reuters. Microsoft challenged the warrant, pointing out that the data is located outside of the U.S. government’s jurisdiction. However, in April, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis ruled that Microsoft had to comply with the warrant since the request regarded intangible information, rather than physical property.

Now Microsoft is appealing the magistrate judge’s ruling by noting that if the company complied with the warrant, it would be violating the U.S. Stored Communications Act, as well as Ireland’s own laws regarding data seizures. As noted by GigaOM, Judge Francis’s ruling was based on his unusual interpretation of how data is acquired from the servers. In Judge Francis’ view, “a search occurs when information from or about the data is exposed to possible human observation, such as when it appears on a screen, rather than when it is copied by the hard drive or processed by the computer.” 

As noted by Microsoft, this interpretation would allow the U.S. government to seize the data of any overseas customer without regard for other countries’ laws. “The government takes the extraordinary position that by merely serving such a warrant on any U.S.-based email provider, it has the right to obtain the private emails of any subscriber, no matter where in the world the data may be located and without the knowledge or consent of the subscriber or the relevant foreign government where the data is stored,” wrote Microsoft in its filing provided by Techdirt. “This interpretation not only blatantly rewrites the statute, it reads out of the Fourth Amendment the bedrock requirement that the government must specify the place to be searched with particularity, effectively amending the Constitution for searches of communications held digitally.”

Microsoft’s appeal is part of an overall larger pushback from tech companies against the government’s information requests following the exposure of the NSA’s electronic communications surveillance programs by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last year. Apple and eight other major tech companies recently sent an open letter to the U.S. Senate asking it to rein in the NSA’s surveillance programs, reports The Hill. Many tech companies, including Apple, have also recently revised user privacy policies in response the public’s increased concern over privacy issues.

U.S. tech companies are also concerned that a lack of data protection will drive overseas customers away and harm their ability to conduct business in other countries. Verizon highlighted this concern in its amicus curiae filing. “The magistrate’s ruling, if left standing, could cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars in lost revenue, undermine international agreements and understandings, and prompt foreign governments to retaliate by forcing foreign affiliates of American companies to turn over the content of customer data stored in the United States,” wrote Verizon in a filing obtained by Techdirt. “The recent revelations about U.S. intelligence practices have heightened foreign sensitivities about the U.S. government’s access to data abroad, generated distrust of U.S. companies by foreign officials and customers, and led to calls to cease doing business with U.S. communications and cloud service providers. Studies have estimated that this distrust will result in tens of billions of dollars in lost business over the next few years.”

A ruling on Microsoft’s appeal is expected in the next several weeks.

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