Microsoft Sues US DOJ Over Secret Requests for Customer Data

Arguing that "customers have a right to know when the government obtains warrants to read their emails," Microsoft today filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington against the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The aim of the lawsuit is to enable Microsoft to tell its customers when the government asks for their data.

The complaint centers on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, a law regulating government surveillance of oral, wire and electronic communications. Privacy advocates have long advocated for an update to the legislation, and just yesterday the U.S. House Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced a bill on e-mail privacy for consideration by the full House.

Over the past year-and-a-half, Microsoft said it has received thousands of legal demands for customer data from the federal government, and is prevented in many cases from ever informing customers about such requests.

The lawsuit states that the ECPA "allows courts to order Microsoft to keep its customers in the dark when the government seeks their e-mail content or other private information, based solely on a 'reason to believe' that disclosure might hinder an investigation." We reached out to the Justice Department for comment, but did not receive a response.

Urgency 'Clear and Growing'

The urgency for action is clear and growing, Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith wrote today in a post on the company's Issues blog. "Over the past 18 months, the U.S. government has required that we maintain secrecy regarding 2,576 legal demands, effectively silencing Microsoft from speaking to customers about warrants or other legal process seeking their data," he said.

According to Smith, 1,752 of these secrecy orders, or 68 percent of the total, did not contain fixed end dates. "This means that we effectively are prohibited forever from telling...

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