Google, Amazon.com Inc. and other tech leaders rallied behind Microsoft Corp. in its battle to stop the U.S. government from conducting so-called sneak-and-peak searches of customers’ e-mails.
Microsoft and its supporters argue the very future of mobile and cloud computing is at stake if customers can’t trust that their data will remain private. Delta Air Lines Inc. and BP America Inc. along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other businesses also asked to join the case in support of Microsoft, saying the benefits of cloud computing won’t be realized if privacy rights aren’t protected against government surveillance.
“But that is the inevitable consequence of allowing the government to continue obtaining gag orders of indefinite duration,” the companies said Friday in a court filing. Those companies, some of which are Microsoft clients, include Eli Lilly & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline Plc.
The Justice Department, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and their backers, defend the searches, saying they need digital tools to help fight increasingly sophisticated criminals and terrorists who are savvy at using technology to communicate and hide their tracks.
Fox News Network LLC, the Associated Press and 27 other news organizations asked in a separate filing Friday to join the case, saying restraints on disclosing warrants to e-mail users violate free-speech rights.
Microsoft has been fighting the U.S. over customer privacy and clandestine disclosures to investigators for more than two years. In July, the software maker persuaded an appeals court to overturn an order to hand over e-mails stored on servers in Ireland as part of a Manhattan drug prosecution.
In the case before a federal judge in Seattle, Microsoft calls the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act unconstitutional, citing its own First Amendment free speech rights and its customers’ Fourth Amendment right to know whether the government has searched or seized their property. Those very laws allow the U.S. to obtain electronic communications with a warrant and secrecy order if it would endanger their case or a person, the government contends.
Global trust in U.S. surveillance has waned since the disclosures of former CIA employee and security contractor Edward Snowden, to the point that companies now have to make overtures to consumers about their interest and ability to keep content secure, said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Matt Larson.
“Microsoft wants to be able able to tell its customers that these types of proceedings are going on to protect their privacy,” Larson said. “The end game for Microsoft here is to at least have the DOJ revisit its procedures when pursuing these warrants.”
Microsoft alleges that in the 18 months leading up to the April complaint, it received more than 5,600 federal demands for customer data, about 2,600 of which were accompanied by secrecy orders that prevent Microsoft from disclosing searches to the affected customers.
Microsoft’s supporters include four former U.S. attorneys in Washington state and a former special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle office. They contend that secret searches are unconstitutional because “obtaining a warrant, but not disclosing it, nullifies an essential function of the warrant, which is to provide notice to the person who is the target of the search.”
The case is Microsoft Corp. v. U.S. Department of Justice, 16-cv-00538, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington (Seattle).