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Microsoft Takes On Government In Defense Of Data Privacy

Microsoft is suing the Justice Department for what it believes are unconstitutional requests for customer data.After Apple and the FBI put the digital privacy debate front and center, Microsoft has also stepped in to take a stand. On April 14, the tech company sued the Justice Department for what it believes is the unconstitutional bar on tech companies that currently prevents them from disclosing when federal agents access certain customer data.

The Microsoft lawsuit

In its suit, Microsoft says that it’s received over 5,000 federal demands for customer data in the past 18 months. Around 2,000 of these requests came with “secrecy orders,” which prohibit Microsoft from informing customers that the government is viewing their information. Additionally, 1,752 of these orders have no time limit, which could forever prevent Microsoft from informing customers of these actions.

Through this lawsuit, Microsoft hopes to vehemently defend digital privacy. The company said that the part of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act calling for this data is unconstitutional, violating Microsoft’s First Amendment free speech rights and customers’ Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against the unreasonable search and seizure of property. The company wrote that technology deserves the same protection as any physical document, though the government may not currently recognize that.

“The government seeks and executes warrants for electronic communications far more frequently than it sought and executed warrants for physical documents and communications – apparently because it believes it can search and seize those documents and communications under a veil of secrecy,” the company wrote in the suit.

Comparison with Apple/FBI debate

The lawsuit carries striking similarities with Apple’s public debate against the FBI over the iPhone belonging to one shooter in the San Bernardino massacre. As with Microsoft, Apple also worried about setting an unethical precedent with the government.

For Apple, however, there was the additional worry that if they created software for backdoor access to devices, there would be no guarantee that it couldn’t get into the wrong hands. For consumers who keep so much of their personal information on devices, these means of access could create a greater possibility of data breach and identity theft.

Apple’s resistance ended up not mattering, though. Through an unidentified third party, the FBI was able to unlock the phone. According to Bloomberg, FBI Director James Comey said the access method only works for a certain category of phones. Further, Apple has also assured that its ongoing improvements will soon render the tool useless.

How the conversation continues

However, the debate persists with Microsoft, and with recent legislation released by U.S. senators. The proposal says that, with a court order, tech and internet companies would have to allow government agencies to access data.

“I am hopeful that this draft will start a meaningful and inclusive debate on the role of encryption and its place within the rule of law,” Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, who is writing the bill with Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, said in a statement.

It’s unclear how successful this proposal will be. Bloomberg reported that technology industry associations and lawmakers have publicly opposed it, highlighting how it would force companies to produce alternative methods of entry into devices, ultimately reducing security for customers. Michael Beckerman, President and CEO of the Internet Association, expressed in a statement that encryption is essential not only for consumer security, but also for national security.

While the government accessing your data may not necessarily mean a heightened risk for identity theft, it’s a helpful reminder to keep a watchful eye on your personal information. For further assistance in this effort, consider investing in a service like Identity Guard, which can monitor your credit file or Social Security Number and notify you of certain activity that may indicate fraud.

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