Justice Department limits use of secrecy orders when accessing digital data

25 October, 2017, 01:05 | Author: Devin Moran
  • Microsoft chief counsel Brad Smith.                  Jean Christophe Verhaegen  AFP  Getty Images

In the 18 months before Microsoft sued in April 2016 in Seattle, the company said 2,756 of the legal demands it received from the USA government came with secrecy orders and two-thirds appeared to extend indefinitely.

Microsoft is dropping a lawsuit against the United States government after the Department of Justice issued new rules limiting the use of secrecy orders that prevent firms from telling customers law enforcement has accessed their data.

In April 2016, Microsoft filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department over the right to inform its customers that authorities were accessing their emails held on company servers. Microsoft receives thousands of data requests from the US government each year, so having so many secret orders seems at least unusual.

Sometimes these orders do not include a fixed end date, added Smith, effectively prohibiting service providers from ever telling customers that the government has obtained their data.

Talking about the new policy of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Microsoft president and chief legal advisor, Brad Smith, said it "is an important step for both privacy and free expression".

Microsoft said the DOJ has now established a new policy that restricts its agents from using secret orders for data requests, and it also puts a limit on the lifetime of the gag orders.

The DOJ's policy was its interpretation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, meant to extend wiretap laws into the computer age, and Microsoft said it would continue its efforts to have the ECPA revised, calling the law "outdated".

Microsoft is calling on Congress to pass legislation that would limit secrecy orders to 90 days, unless the government seeks renewal, according to the Post coverage.

We still don't know whether or not this new law will pass, and DOJ policies can change at any time.

The lawsuit was filed in April previous year, with Microsoft claiming the USA government was in violation of the constitution, namely its Fourth Amendment.

The Justice Department relented, and last week set new guidelines created to make sneak-and-peek searches more selective. "We will continue to turn to the courts if needed". "It is time to update this outdated 1986 law that regulates government access to contemporary electronic communications", he wrote. We are thankful for the almost 90 technology companies, media enterprises and organizations, academics, business groups and companies, civil liberties groups and former law-enforcement officials who signed friend-of-the-court briefs in this case.

As a result, Microsoft has dropped one of its lawsuits against the government, which argued it had the right to tell its customers about data slurps.


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