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Microsoft Sues U.S., Says It Shouldn't Have to Keep Quiet About Data Requests

The company says secrecy demands have become the norm when the federal government demands customer data.

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Microsoft is once again challenging U.S. government policies that it says too often demand that it and other email providers hand over customer records without being able to notify the individuals or businesses involved.

The company filed a suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Seattle against the Justice Department and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, saying that such secret orders should be the exception rather than the rule. Instead, Microsoft said it has been required to maintain secrecy about more than 2,500 legal demands over the past 18 months. More than two-thirds of those orders have no fixed end date on the secrecy requirement, Microsoft said.

“We don’t take lightly this type of action — filing a lawsuit against any government,” Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said in a blog post. “We only do so when we believe that critical principles and important practical consequences are at stake.”

That said, this is Microsoft’s fourth suit against the U.S. government on the issue of secret data requests. In the most recent prior case, Microsoft is challenging a U.S. court’s ruling that the company needs to turn over a customer email belonging to a non-U.S. citizen that is stored on a server in Ireland. That case is pending before a federal appeals court, with Microsoft receiving support from a number of other U.S. tech companies, including Verizon, eBay, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco.

Microsoft settled a separate case with the federal government that allows it to disclose the total number of legal requests it receives.

As for the current case, Microsoft says the government’s authority to demand secrecy is unconstitutionally broad.

“Microsoft brings this case because its customers have a right to know when the government obtains a warrant to read their emails, and because Microsoft has a right to tell them,” the company said in the suit. “Yet the Electronic Communications Privacy Act allows courts to order Microsoft to keep its customers in the dark when the government seeks their email content or other private information, based solely on a ‘reason to believe’ that disclosure might hinder an investigation. Nothing in the statute requires that the ‘reason to believe’ be grounded in the facts of the particular investigation, and the statute contains no limit on the length of time such secrecy orders may be kept in place.”

Here’s a copy of Thursday’s suit.

Microsoft Sues Federal Government Over Secrecy Requirements

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