Microsoft sues US government over secret requests for user data

Indefinite gag orders are unconstitutional, the company argues

Microsoft has sued the U.S. government in an attempt to strike down a law allowing judges to gag tech companies when law enforcement agencies want access to their users' data.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, argues that a section of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is unconstitutional for requiring tech companies to keep requests for data under wraps.

Microsoft argued the law is unconstitutional under the First Amendment, by limiting the company's freedom of speech, as well as under the Fourth Amendment's due process protections.

Under one section of ECPA, judges can order a request for data be kept secret if they believe knowledge of its existence will endanger life, allow criminals to flee, or otherwise jeopardize an investigation.

Courts have issued almost 2,576 secrecy orders to Microsoft over the past 18 months, with more than two-thirds containing no fixed end date, Brad Smith, the company's president and chief legal officer, said in a blog post. That presents a problem for the burgeoning cloud computing industry, the company said.

"These twin developments — the increase in government demands for online data and the simultaneous increase in secrecy — have combined to undermine confidence in the privacy of the cloud and have impaired Microsoft's right to be transparent with its customers, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment," the company said in its lawsuit.

The transparency is important for Microsoft, as more and more of its business is focused on enticing customers to move their data to the cloud. If the U.S. government can secretly request data from Microsoft when the company is asking more people and companies to entrust it with their data, that might slow adoption.

The company isn't opposed to secret government requests in situations where they are necessary, but Microsoft wants that authority limited.

Smith suggested that the government could sidestep the lawsuit with new policies or laws. The Department of Justice could adopt new policies limiting how it uses the authority it's given under ECPA, or Congress could amend the law to restrict what the government can do.

Right now, though, it's unclear how Microsoft's lawsuit will fare. It would be "premature to guess" how successful Microsoft is likely to be, Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said in an email.

What's more, this case could take a while. Lawsuits frequently take years to work their way through the courts, and a case of this nature is likely to go through several layers of appeals. Don't expect the issue to be settled soon.

A representative for the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Microsoft

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Blair Hanley Frank

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Father’s Day Gift Guide

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?