After Apple, Microsoft Clashes With US Govt Over Privacy

by CXOtoday News Desk    Apr 15, 2016

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2016 is seeing more and more tech majors are at loggerheads with the US government over privacy rights. Recently, Microsoft is engaged in the clash over privacy rights with the US government, suing the latter over a federal law that allows authorities to examine customer emails or online files without the individual’s knowledge.

The tech industry is increasingly in trouble with the US government officials over the right to view a wide range of information. These include emails, photos and financial records that customers store on their smartphones and in their “cloud” computing devices.

Earlier this year there was a legal tassle between FBI and Apple, revolving around the data locked in an encrypted iPhone 5c, that was owned by shooters involved in the San Bernardino, California shooting massacre last December.

In a recent blog post, Microsoft explains that the company believes 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 US 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,” it says.

According to a Reuters report, Microsoft has opened a suit against the policy of secret government data requests. The Redmond-based company alleges that the government is violating the US Constitution by preventing it from customers of government requests for emails and other documents stored on its remote servers.

In the suit, Microsoft claims it has received 5,624 demands for customer information over the past 18 months. Of those requests, 2,576 supposedly came an attached gag order preventing the company from informing customers of the government seized data. The IT major also says that 1,752 orders came without a time limit, preventing it from ever telling customers that the government obtained their digital files.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer states that the issue also has practical implications, and it’s important to consider them. According to him, “Cloud computing has spurred a profound change in the storage of private information. Today, individuals increasingly keep their emails and documents on remote servers in data centers – in short, in the cloud. But the transition to the cloud does not alter people’s expectations of privacy and should not alter the fundamental constitutional requirement that the government must – with few exceptions – give notice when it searches and seizes private information or communications.” And the same is true for businesses large and small.

Under the Electronics Communication Privacy Act (ECPA), the government has the right to access files stored in the cloud. But, privacy advocates argue that this law was written before the rise of the commercial internet and is therefore outdated. 

According to Microsoft and several others, as the world continues to shift toward a more digital centric approach, it’s clear that such outdated laws — built before the rise of the consumer internet — can no longer be valid today.

Some also believe that Apple, Microsoft and the recent debate with the US government can be an eye-opener to the entire tech industry in matters of privacy rights in the digital age.