September 15, 2015

How a Legal Squabble Could Change the Way the Government Collects Personal Data

Summary

An ongoing legal battle between Microsoft and the Department of Justice (DOJ) over a warrant for customer emails has the potential to seriously threaten open Internet policies around the world. The dispute hinges on abstract legal and technical questions about digital ownership and territoriality, but the broad result will be "fundamental to the future of global technology," as Microsoft described it, because the court's decision could limit or expand the federal government’s power to access personal data stored overseas.

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An ongoing legal battle between Microsoft and the Department of Justice (DOJ) over a warrant for customer emails has the potential to seriously threaten open Internet policies around the world. The dispute hinges on abstract legal and technical questions about digital ownership and territoriality, but the broad result will be "fundamental to the future of global technology," as Microsoft described it, because the court's decision could limit or expand the federal government’s power to access personal data stored overseas.

The case arose in 2013, when a New York magistrate served a warrant to Microsoft to access the email communications of a suspected drug dealer. Microsoft proceeded to gather the needed data to comply with the warrant, as it usually did. In the course of its search, however, Microsoft discovered that only the relevant "metadata"—descriptive information that merely describes the content or context of data—was stored in the U.S. The actual content of the communications was stored overseas in a wholly-owned Microsoft subsidiary’s servers in Ireland, well beyond the jurisdiction of a normal U.S. warrant.

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