US judge orders Microsoft to produce emails held abroad

Microsoft had sought to prevent the Justice Department from obtaining emails in Ireland without first getting the country's consent.

Charles Cooper
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.
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A federal judge said Thursday that Microsoft can't prevent the US Department of Justice from obtaining emails stored in a data center overseas in a case that has raised concern among Internet privacy groups and technology companies.

Chief US District Judge Loretta Preska today ordered Microsoft to comply with a December warrant allowing the DOJ to obtain a customer's email-account data stored in Dublin, Ireland. The US government is seeking the emails in connection with a criminal investigation.

At the same time, the judge said she would stay her order temporarily, a decision that will let Microsoft appeal her decision to the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Indeed, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in a statement reacting the judge's decision that the company planned to challenge her ruling.

"The only issue that was certain this morning was that the District Court's decision would not represent the final step in this process," Smith said. "We will appeal promptly and continue to advocate that people's email deserves strong privacy protection in the US and around the world."

Microsoft earlier objected to the warrant, saying the US government doesn't have the right to obtain private emails without the "knowledge or consent of the subscriber or the relevant foreign government where the data is stored." Microsoft has argued that the the stored communications provisions of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) do not apply outside of United States territory.

Apple and Cisco, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, filed friend-of-the-court briefs last month backing Microsoft's position.

The outcome of this debate may reinforce concerns around the world that the data of their citizens is not safe with Microsoft and other US tech companies if US intelligence or law enforcement seek to gain access to the information.

All this began last December 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 Dublin, Ireland, Microsoft refused.

The company maintained 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 quash the warrant.