The government’s effort to force Microsoft to turn over the contents of an email account stored in an Irish data center will get a hearing in the top U.S. court, the latest in a long-running clash over law enforcement’s reach into the internet.
The Supreme Court will hear the U.S. government’s appeal of a court ruling denying prosecutors access to emails held by Microsoft in an Irish data server, setting up a high-profile test of government reach across borders in the internet age.
The case stems from a narcotics investigation by U.S. authorities. Prosecutors in late 2013 asked Microsoft to turn over the contents of a customer’s email account.
The Redmond technology company, after finding that the emails were stored abroad, refused and asked the government to work through Irish authorities to retrieve the data. U.S. law enforcement lacked the authority to issue warrants that reach abroad, Microsoft’s lawyers contended.
The government disagreed, saying existing law gave prosecutors the power to grab the emails because they were making the request of a U.S. entity, and it didn’t matter where around the world the data was located.
Microsoft’s argument could lead to dangerous precedent if criminals were allowed to evade the reach of government by choosing to store their data abroad, Justice Department lawyers argued.
Microsoft lost the first two rounds in federal court, but won before an appeals court panel in July 2016.
The high court said Monday that it would take up the Justice Department’s appeal of that ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The administration said in its Supreme Court appeal that the decision is damaging “hundreds if not thousands of investigations of crimes — ranging from terrorism, to child pornography, to fraud.”
Wherever the emails reside, Microsoft can retrieve them “domestically with the click of a computer mouse,” Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Wall told the court.
The case is among the most prominent clashes between the government and technology companies over the rules around law enforcement’s access to data. Its outcome is important for Microsoft, which is staking its future on software services delivered via the internet and often across borders.
Big businesses, particularly in Europe, have scrutinized U.S. companies’ safeguards against government intrusion since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed previously secret details about the U.S. government’s reach into cyberspace.
Microsoft’s position in the case has drawn support from a range of civil-liberties groups, as well as its industry peers.
In a statement posted to Microsoft’s website after the court’s announcement, company President Brad Smith reiterated a call for Congress to update the laws underlying email privacy, some of which date to the 1980s, to make cases like this one clear.
“We believe that people’s privacy rights should be protected by the laws of their own countries and we believe that information stored in the cloud should have the same protections as paper stored in your desk,” Smith said.