The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether law enforcement officials conducting a criminal investigation can demand data held overseas by Microsoft Corp. and other technology companies in a high-stakes clash over digital privacy.
The justices will review a federal appeals ruling that the Trump administration says has become a major obstacle in criminal probes. Already, Google Inc. and Yahoo, acquired by Verizon Communications Inc., have stopped complying with search warrants for emails and other user data stored outside the country, the Justice Department said.
The lower court said a 1986 law that protects the privacy of electronic communications — and carves out an exception for law enforcement needs — doesn’t extend to data kept in other countries. The ruling came in a case involving emails stored on a Microsoft server in Ireland.
“Under this opinion, hundreds if not thousands of investigations of crimes — ranging from terrorism, to child pornography, to fraud — are being or will be hampered by the government’s inability to obtain electronic evidence,” Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall argued in court papers.
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The justices already are scheduled to consider whether police can gain access without a warrant to cellphone location data held by wireless service providers, so the addition of the Microsoft case makes this term a major one for the intersection of technology and the law.
By agreeing to hear the case, the justices are taking on an issue they could have left alone, since there is no split among federal appeals courts. That’s true in the cellphone location data case as well.
Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said the court should have waited for Congress to act. “The current laws were written for the era of the floppy disk, not the world of the cloud,” he said on his blog. “We believe that rather than arguing over an old law in court, it is time for Congress to act by passing new legislation.”