A US Magistrate's court judge by the name of James C Francis issued a ruling last December (2013) compelling Microsoft to turn over stored e-mail data as requested by a subpoena from the United States government. The subpoena was part of ongoing government surveillance carried out by the US National Security Agency (NSA) under supposed statutory authority contained in the Stored Communications Act (SCA) that was made law in 1986.
Microsoft disagreed with the legal authority of the subpoena, filing a motion to challenge it in court. The company recently lost its appeal before the same judge that issued the original order. According to Francis, the US government does have the authority to subpoena stored computer data regardless of where it is physically held. In this case, the data is on a server in Ireland.
Despite Judge Francis' ruling, Microsoft has no intention of turning over the requested data. Its legal team has maintained all along that it expected such an outcome. It also plans to take its case all the way through a federal appeals court and, if necessary, up to the US Supreme Court. The company believes that, just as the US government does not have the authority to search a private home located in another country, it also has no right to search the contents of a data centre server located in another country.
The government's position rests in the fact that Microsoft is a US-based company with servers located within its borders. Furthermore, some of the information regarding the e-mail account in question is also stored on those US servers. The government believes the circumstances make that e-mail account a US-based account subject to US search and seizure laws.
Regardless of your position, rest assured this would not be the last decision on this issue. The age of cloud computing has brought to fruition what many privacy experts were warning years ago: the blurred lines between national borders thanks to cloud data being scattered across sites around the world.
Edward Snowden's whistle-blowing efforts last year blew the lid open on the previously secret operations of the US NSA. For that much, the world probably owes him at least some measure of respect and gratitude. However, we have now been made aware of some troubling trends regarding how world governments treat what is supposed to be private information. If Microsoft ultimately fails in its motion to block the federal subpoena, what will be next?
Will the US government begin subpoenaing data centre reports detailing every bit and byte transferred to and from its servers on a daily basis? Will it start combing through private communications between family members, private financial records including sensitive data like bank accounts, or any other electronic record they believe is vital to the security cause? It is not beyond imagination, that's for sure.
For the sake of Internet security and freedom, let's hope US courts step up and put an end to the over-reaching arm of government.