Tech companies rally round Microsoft over cloud surveillance

Microsoft has been backed by technology companies and a swathe of US corporates in a legal action against the US government over laws that could have major implications for the development of cloud computing.

The law would enable US government agencies to seize data hosted on third-party computers, while at the same time barring the hosting company from informing its customers of the seizure. Microsoft claims that the law is unconstitutional, and filed suit in April in a Seattle federal court in a bid to have the law overturned.

Microsoft argues that the law violates the Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures, and requiring warrants to be judicially sanctioned and supported by “probable cause”.

Microsoft revealed in the lawsuit that it has been subject to 2,600 federal court orders in the past 18 months, requiring it to hand over data to US government agencies and barring it from informing customers.

Such orders have ballooned in recent years as the US government has effectively extended the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 far beyond what was originally envisioned when it was passed.

But, in addition to support from a range of technology companies, such as Apple, Google and Amazon, Microsoft has also been supported by a broad range of corporate America, including BP America, Delta Air Lines, Eli Lilly and even Fox News.

The companies were registering their support on the deadline for filing “friend of the court briefs” by non-participants in the case, according to newswire Reuters.

For its part, the US Justice Department has argued that Microsoft has no right to bring the case at all, and that there is a strong public interest in law enforcement agencies keeping criminal investigations confidential.

The case comes after the US government demanded access to emails that were stored on a server physically located in Ireland. Microsoft argued that this was beyond the scope of the US courts and that, if the US government agency wanted access to those emails, it should follow long-established practices and get a warrant from courts in Ireland.

Such actions by the US government, it added, might also contravene US-EU privacy agreements.