Microsoft was ordered on July 31 to comply with a U.S. Department of Justice warrant to produce emails stored at the company's data center in Dublin, Ireland. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant operates a network of several data centers across the globe to provide Web and cloud services.
Manhattan's U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska ruled that Microsoft must turn over the emails to the DOJ, despite the fact that they reside on overseas servers. In a judgment that is sure to have implications for American cloud providers, Preska determined that since the data is stored and controlled by a U.S.-based company, the government can request it regardless of where it resides.
Preska is putting a hold on the ruling, giving Microsoft an opportunity to appeal. Microsoft's outspoken top lawyer is taking the judge up on her offer.
"The only issue that was certain this morning was that the District Court's decision would not represent the final step in this process," said Brad Smith, Microsoft's top lawyer, in a statement. "We will appeal promptly and continue to advocate that people's email deserves strong privacy protection in the U.S. and around the world."
The controversial case began late last year when the DOJ issued a warrant for emails stored on the company's Outlook.com email service.
Microsoft turned over U.S.-based data, but refused to supply emails stored in its Ireland facility on the basis that warrants cannot be enforced outside the country under U.S. law. The DOJ countered that Microsoft had been served with a "hybrid," of sorts, constituting both a warrant and a subpoena, the latter of which can be used to gather information from abroad, provided that the subject is notified.
Industry heavyweights have been keeping a close eye on the proceedings. Verizon, Cisco, Apple and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have all filed amicus briefs in support of Microsoft.
The decision is a setback for Microsoft and its efforts to bolster legal protections for private user data.
Since the revelations surrounding the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) cyber-spying capabilities made headlines last year, Smith has been increasingly critical of government efforts to access user data. In January, he called for "an international legal framework—an international convention—to create surveillance and data-access rules across borders."
This month, he celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court's "historic" decision requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a search warrant before examining a person's cell phone.
That ruling "shifted the scales of justice in a profound way," he said. The chief justices, he added, "noted that phones today are often a gateway to the email and pictures we now store in the cloud, and these deserve the same constitutional protection we've traditionally had for things kept in our homes."