US judge rules digital search warrants apply to overseas email accounts
Ruling would see Microsoft, Google obliged to disclose foreign email to US agencies
Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. US judge James Francis, in New York, yesterday said internet service providers, such as Microsoft or Google, cannot refuse to turn over customer information and emails stored in other countries when issued a valid search warrant from US law enforcement agencies. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Internet service providers must turn over customer emails and other digital content sought by US government search warrants even when the information is stored overseas, a federal judge in New York has ruled in a case involving a Dublin server.
In what appears to be the first court decision addressing the issue, US judge James Francis, in New York, said internet service providers, such as Microsoft or Google, cannot refuse to turn over customer information and emails stored in other countries when issued a valid search warrant from US law enforcement agencies.
If US agencies were required to co-ordinate efforts with foreign governments to secure such information, the judge said, the burden “would be substantial, and law enforcement efforts would be seriously impeded”.
The ruling underscores the debate over privacy and technol ogy that has intensified since disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
“It showcases an increasing trend that data can be anywhere,” said Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University who studies computer crime law.
The decision addressed a search warrant served on Microsoft for one of its customers whose emails are stored on a server in Dublin, Ireland.
Microsoft said it challenged the warrant because the US government should not be able to search the content of email held overseas.
“A US prosecutor cannot obtain a US warrant to search someone’s home located in another country, just as another country’s prosecutor cannot obtain a court order in her home country to conduct a search in the US,” the company said. “We think the same rules should apply in the online world, but the government disagrees.”
The company plans to seek review of the decision from a federal district judge.
The search warrant in question sought information associated with an email account for a Microsoft customer, including the customer’s name, contents of all emails received and sent, online session times and durations and any credit card number or bank account used.