Microsoft: Future 'bleak' if gov't continues unlawful data collection

Firm's top lawyer again calls for stop to "unfettered collection of bulk data," argues for reform of secret FISA court.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith Brookings Institution

Microsoft's top lawyer continued his months-long public campaign to pressure the United States government to reform the secret data collection practices revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.

Speaking Tuesday morning at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, the company's general counsel, Brad Smith, called on Congress and the White House to stop what he described as "the unfettered collection of bulk data" by the government and argued for the reform of the secret FISA court.

"I want law enforcement to do its job in an effective way pursuant to the rule of law," he said. "If we can't get to that world, then law enforcement is going to have a bleak future anyway."

Reaching into US history as far back as the presidency of John Adams, Smith said the current row was part of a broader debate that has periodically engaged Americans throughout their history: where to set the proper boundary between privacy and the individual. What's different today, he said, is the role technology plays in an increasingly connected world.

"By the end of this decade there will be 50 billon devices connected to the Internet of Things around the world," Smith said. "This issue is going to become more important, not less."

Earlier this month, Smith sharply criticized the government's data interception practices and said US cyberspying overreach had fostered a "technology trust deficit." Returning to that theme today, Smith cited the US Constitution's search and seizure protections in the Fourth Amendment and said Microsoft would continue to oppose what he described as unlawful government attempts to hack into US data centers at home or overseas.

Smith's appearance has a context. Microsoft is currently embroiled in a dispute with the government over a demand for access to overseas data. The company is resisting a judge's order that it comply with a warrant issued in December for a customer's email-account data stored in Dublin, Ireland.

"The fundamental question that we all have to ask ourselves," he said, "is, What enduring values do we want to continue to enhance?"

In his Brookings appearance, Smith said the technology industry was "fundamentally united" in opposition to the government policies that Snowden's disclosures revealed about the extent of the National Security Agency's cyberspying operations. Beyond the obvious questions about privacy and civil liberties, he also suggested there was a business urgency to fixing the problem sooner rather than later.

"We are in a business that relies on people's trust," he said. "We're offering a world where you should feel comfortable about storing (your information) in the cloud...You need to have confidence that this information is still yours."

Where might all this be heading? One idea Smith broached was a dashboard where people can see what data exists about them, how it's getting used, as well as "some way for people technologically to have control." It's unclear whether Microsoft is already working on such a product. We've contacted the company and will update this post when there's more information.