US Supreme Court justices yesterday wrestled with Microsoft’s dispute with the US justice department over whether prosecutors can force technology companies to hand over data stored overseas, with some signalling support for the government and others urging congress to pass a law to resolve the issue.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both conservatives, hinted during an hour-long argument in the case at support for the justice department’s stance that because Microsoft is based in the US it was obligated to turn over data sought by prosecutors in a US warrant.
As the nine justices grappled with the technological complexities of email data storage, liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether the court needed to act in the data privacy case in light of congress now considering bipartisan legislation that would resolve the legal issue.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
Mr Alito agreed that congress should act but added that “in the interim, something’s got to be done”.
Mr Roberts appeared concerned that companies like Microsoft could enable customers to evade the reach of US prosecutors by deliberately storing data overseas.
The case pits the interests of tech companies and privacy advocates in protecting customer data against the demands of law enforcement in gaining information vital to criminal and counter-terrorism investigations.
It started with a 2013 warrant obtained by US prosecutors for emails of a suspect in a drug trafficking investigation that were stored in Microsoft computer servers in Dublin. Microsoft challenged whether a domestic warrant covered data stored abroad.
The justice department said prosecutors were entitled to the data because Microsoft is headquartered in the US.
Globally dominant American tech firms have expressed fears customers will go elsewhere if they think the US government’s reach extends to data centres around the world without changes being made to the law.
Microsoft, which has 100 data centres in 40 countries, was the first US firm to challenge a domestic search warrant seeking data held outside the US.
The Microsoft customer whose emails were sought told the company he was based in Ireland when he signed up for his account.