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US Supreme Court to review Microsoft email privacy case

The court will examine whether US tech firms have to provide data to law enforcement conducting a criminal investigation, even if that data is held overseas.

Supreme Court of the United States, Washington DC, USA

The Supreme Court will review the case United States v. Microsoft.

Doug Armand/Getty Images

The US Supreme Court will review a high-stakes case over whether law enforcement can demand data stored overseas from a US-based email provider, according to a court order released Monday.

The case, United States v. Microsoft Corp., pits federal and state officials against tech firms, which have supported Redmond in the litigation in the name of digital privacy. It began in 2013, when a New York judge issued a search warrant seeking records and emails from a Microsoft account in a case connected with a criminal investigation. After concluding that the emails investigators sought were located on one of its servers in Ireland, Microsoft refused to hand over the information, arguing that a US judge has no authority to hand out warrants for search and seizure of property or data abroad.

The judge later rejected Microsoft's request to stop the warrant and a court ruled in 2014 that Microsoft must hand over the emails. Microsoft again refused, saying that the US doesn't have the right to access email communications from people who are not living in the country. An appeals court eventually ruled that Microsoft didn't have to supply the data to law enforcement.

The Trump administration maintains that ruling has becoming a major impediment in criminal investigations. The Justice Department said Google, Verizon and Yahoo have stopped complying with search warrants for emails and other data stored overseas. 

 "The decision is causing immediate, grave, and ongoing harm to public safety, national security, and the enforcement of our laws," Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall wrote in a June court filing (PDF). "Under this opinion, hundreds if not thousands of investigations of crimes -- ranging from terrorism, to child pornography, to fraud -- are being or will be hampered by the government's inability to obtain electronic evidence."

Microsoft has argued that Congress needs to pass legislation that would update current data laws, which were enacted more than 30 years ago. 

"The continued reliance on a law passed in 1986 will neither keep people safe nor protect people's rights," Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said in a blog post Monday. "If US law enforcement can obtain the emails of foreigners stored outside the United States, what's to stop the government of another country from getting your emails even though they are located in the United States?"

Microsoft declined to comment beyond Smith's post.

The court is expected to hear arguments early next year and rule by June.  

First published Oct. 16, 9:02 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:29 a.m. PT: Adds more background information and context on the case.  

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