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Supreme Court To Hear Arguments in Microsoft Privacy Case

Microsoft attorneys will make their arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday in their final opportunity to sway an e-mail privacy case that is central to the willingness of international customers to trust U.S.-based cloud providers with their data, among numerous important legal issues.

The face-off between lawyers from Microsoft and the Trump administration, which is carrying on with arguments from the Obama administration, involves an e-mail privacy case stemming from a drug investigation in 2013.

At the time, federal agents sought and obtained a warrant for a suspect's e-mails from a magistrate judge in the Southern District of New York. Microsoft, reeling from international backlash to Edward Snowden document revelations that detailed cooperation by several technology giants with U.S. intelligence agencies, fought the order.

Microsoft argued that because the e-mails were stored at its datacenter in Ireland, the U.S. warrant didn't apply. The challenge failed in U.S. District Court, but succeeded in the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd District. The government appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed last October to hear the case.

Arguments center on a 1986 law called the Stored Communications Act that was drafted before cloud datacenters or even the widespread use of e-mail. In short, Microsoft contends that the U.S. government does not have the right to unilaterally demand e-mails held by a U.S. provider in a datacenter in another country, noting that the government has never suggested that the account holder lived in the United States or was a U.S. citizen. Instead, Microsoft argues that the U.S. government should cooperate with courts and law enforcement in other countries to obtain data held in those places.

The government's case is that a U.S. company can essentially press a button in the United States to deliver materials to government investigators, making the question of where the data resides theoretical. Government lawyers also argue that systems like Google's that involve slicing up data and storing it all over the world make questions about where the data resides even murkier.

The closely watched case has drawn more than 30 friend-of-the-court briefs from other tech firms, privacy advocates, the European Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and former law enforcement and national security officials. Additionally, 33 states had urged the high court to take the case over concerns that the appeals court ruling allowed a private company to shield evidence from law enforcement.

After the arguments Tuesday, a Supreme Court decision is expected by the end of June.

Posted by Scott Bekker on 02/26/2018 at 8:20 AM


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