Microsoft’s quest to put a stop the US government’s habit of demanding access to customers’ digital records in court-ordered secrecy has won dozens of allies in the tech world.
The likes of Apple, Google, and Mozilla—among many others—have put their names to an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit Microsoft filed against the federal government over its controversial and continued use of gagging orders.
When the software giant filed the suit in April, its chief legal officer Brad Smith said that gag orders had been applied to 2,576 demands by various law enforcement agencies for access to user data, including e-mails, over an 18-month period.
More than two thirds of these (1,752) came with no end date, which he said effectively prohibited Microsoft forever “from telling our customers that the government has obtained their data”—which Redmond claims violates the Fourth Amendment (the people’s right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures of their property).
The latest development means that an eclectic mix of outfits have now lined up against Washington, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Washington Post, the US Chamber of Commerce, Delta Air Lines, BP America, and Fox News. According to Reuters, five former FBI and justice department officials have also written in support of Microsoft’s crusade.
Smith joked in a statement that “it’s not every day that Fox News and the ACLU are on the same side of an issue.” He added:
We believe the constitutional rights at stake in this case are of fundamental importance, and people should know when the government accesses their emails unless secrecy is truly needed.
For its part, the justice department has previously argued that the public has a “compelling interest in keeping criminal investigations confidential.” It declined to comment on Friday’s amicus filing.
Mozilla said in a blog post that it had lent its name to the brief because it shares values of transparency. The browser maker’s chief legal officer Denelle Dixon-Thayer said that while Mozilla was yet to receive any such gag orders, it would fight them if they did land at its door.
“The government often issues indefinite orders that prevent companies from notifying users even years later, long after everyone would agree the gag order is no longer needed,” she said. “These actions needlessly sacrifice transparency without justification. That’s foolish and unacceptable.”
In April, Microsoft’s Smith wrote:
To be clear, we appreciate that there are times when secrecy around a government warrant is needed. This is the case, for example, when disclosure of the government’s warrant would create a real risk of harm to another individual or when disclosure would allow people to destroy evidence and thwart an investigation.
But based on the many secrecy orders we have received, we question whether these orders are grounded in specific facts that truly demand secrecy. To the contrary, it appears that the issuance of secrecy orders has become too routine.
This post originated on Ars Technica UK