Services & Software

Warrant denied: Feds can't search foreign data servers, appeals court rules

In a battle over an email account, a federal appeals court says the government can't use a US warrant to demand data stored outside the United States.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 22: A logo sits illuminated outside the Microsoft pavilion on the opening day of the World Mobile Congress at the Fira Gran Via Complex on February 22, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. The annual Mobile World Congress hosts some of the world's largest communications companies, with many unveiling their latest phones and wearables gadgets. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

No dice. Federal warrants don't apply to emails, documents and other data stored on servers outside the United States, according to a ruling Thursday by a federal appeals court.

That's great news for Microsoft, which brought the appeal after a lower court ruled that the company must hand over emails stored in Dublin, Ireland, and held the company in contempt for refusing. Those findings are now reversed. The company has positioned itself as a defender of user privacy and has brought a number of court challenges over government efforts to search or subpoena user information.

Thursday's decision, by the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals, was based on the Stored Communications Act, a law that lets government access internet users' data with a warrant.

"We conclude that Congress did not intend the SCA's warrant provisions to apply extraterritorially," the appellate judges wrote in their decision. "The focus of those provisions is protection of a user's privacy interests."

Microsoft said in a statement that it welcomed the decision. "It ensures that people's privacy rights are protected by the laws of their own countries," Microsoft said. What's more, "it helps ensure that the legal protections of the physical world apply in the digital domain." Microsoft said it also hopes the ruling will prompt Congress to modernize internet warrant and subpoena laws.

"We are disappointed with the court's decision and are considering our options," said Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Department of Justice. "Lawfully accessing information stored by American providers outside the United States quickly enough to act on evolving criminal or national security threats that impact public safety is crucial to fulfilling our mission to protect citizens and obtain justice for victims of crime."

Update, 11:45 a.m. PT: Adds statement from the US Department of Justice.