Apple, Microsoft Grapple with Feds Over Access to Customer Data

Federal authorities in the U.S. are continuing to press for access to encrypted or overseas data handled by companies such as Apple and Microsoft, while technology and civil rights advocates say such backdoors would worsen -- rather than protect -- online and offline security. The direction of that conversation could take a dramatic turn one way or the other with a federal appeals court hearing Wednesday on the Microsoft-Ireland case.

The case revolves around the efforts of the U.S. Department of Justice to obtain the contents of a MSN.com e-mail account in connection with a drug trafficking investigation. Microsoft contends the federal court order does not apply in overseas jurisdictions and therefore e-mail data stored on its servers in Ireland are exempt from the order.

Apple, too, has been the focus of efforts by U.S. officials to gain access to its customers' data. The New York Times reported today that this summer Apple declined to comply with a Justice Department court order because the company said it couldn't access data sent by customers using its end-to-end encrypted iMessage system.

Far-Reaching Implications

"The reality is that companies are encrypting data because doing that is good for security," said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Federal officials who insist otherwise are pursuing an "anti-cybersecurity agenda," Nojeim told us.

Including security backdoors for federal authorities "would undermine the ability of people to use the Internet with confidence that their communications are not being read by the bad guys," Nojeim said.

The outcome of Wednesday's hearing in a U.S. appeals court in New York could have far-reaching repercussions "for privacy, for the ability of U.S. firms to compete and for state sovereignty," Nojeim said.

If U.S. officials could access data held in facilities overseas, officials in other countries could argue for similar access...

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