Microsoft sues US gov over gag orders

April 15, 2016 // 1:17 p.m.

Tags: #brad-smith #constitution #government #lawsuit #microsoft #privacy #secrecy #surveillance #us-government #wiretap #wiretapping

Microsoft has announced that it is suing the US government for the right to tell its customers when requests have been made for their personal data.

Under current US law, the government is able to request access to subject records held by companies - everything from websites accessed to emails and personal documents held on remote servers. When making these requests, the government can demand that the company in question does not tell anyone - including the subject of the request - that such a request has been made, either until a certain time such as following an arrest or in perpetuity. Microsoft itself, the company has claimed, has been issued 2,576 of these secrecy requests in the past 18 months alone, 1,752 of which are open-ended.

'We believe that with rare exceptions consumers and businesses have a right to know when the government accesses their emails or records. Yet it’s becoming routine for the U.S. government to issue orders that require email providers to keep these types of legal demands secret. We believe that this goes too far and we are asking the courts to address the situation,' explained Microsoft president Brad Smith in a blog post explaining his company's position.

'To be clear, we appreciate that there are times when secrecy around a government warrant is needed. This is the case, for example, when disclosure of the government’s warrant would create a real risk of harm to another individual or when disclosure would allow people to destroy evidence and thwart an investigation. But based on the many secrecy orders we have received, we question whether these orders are grounded in specific facts that truly demand secrecy. To the contrary, it appears that the issuance of secrecy orders has become too routine.'

Arguing that blanket secrecy orders violate the First and Fourth Amendments to the US Constitution, Microsoft has asked for declaratory relief - in other words, for the courts to rule on whether the government has broken constitutional rights or stepped outside the tenets of the laws under which subject access requests are made, and if so to prevent them from doing so in the future.

The full text of the suit can be found here (PDF warning.)
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