The U.S. Department of Justice has asked the Supreme Court to hear a case that could have a massive impact on the way tech companies respond to law enforcement agencies’ requests for user data. At issue is a warrant, issued in 2014, demanding the contents of an email account stored in a Microsoft data center in Dublin, Ireland.
If the DoJ is successful in its bid, it could put tech companies like Microsoft in a tight spot internationally. One concern is that companies will be forced to comply with other countries’ requests for data stored outside their borders (think China requesting a U.S. citizen’s data that’s stored stateside).
Another is that companies will be caught between competing regulations: one country’s law enforcement will demand data stored in another country, where handing that data over in response to a unilateral warrant is deemed illegal.
Microsoft was initially ordered by a magistrate judge to turn the data over, but appealed that ruling to a district court that also ruled against the company. A three judge panel from the second circuit court of appeals heard Microsoft’s subsequent appeal, and ruled in favor of the company, 3-0.
As this was happening, the tech giant was also active in lobbying for new data privacy regulations that would address this issue. The International Communications Privacy Act, which was introduced last year by a bipartisan coalition of senators and congressional representatives, aimed to helped solve this problem. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t make it to a vote.
Microsoft president Brad Smith argued in a blog post that the government should craft new laws for handling international data warrants instead of seeking a Supreme Court ruling in this case.
“The previous decision was soundly in our favor, and we’re confident our arguments will be persuasive with the Supreme Court. However, we’d prefer to keep working alongside the DOJ and before Congress on enacting new law, as Judge Lynch suggested, that works for everyone rather than arguing about an outdated law. We think the legislative path is better for the country too.
There’s still a long road for the case from here. The Supreme Court justices still have to decide whether or not they want to hear the case. If they choose to do so, it’s not clear how they will rule, and the process will take months.
The Justice Department’s petition is embedded below.