Supreme Court Agrees To Hear Case Involving US Demands For Emails Stored Overseas
from the spending-locally,-thinking-globally dept
The Supreme Court has granted the government’s request for review of Second Circuit Appeals Court’s decision finding Microsoft did not have to turn over communications stored overseas in response to US-issued warrants.
This is a pretty quick turnaround as far as tech issues go. The Supreme Court is finally willing to take a look at the privacy expectation of third party phone records (specifically: historical cell site location info), following years of courtroom discussion… which follow years of Third Party Doctrine expansion.
That being said, a resolving of sorts is needed to clarify the reach of US law enforcement going forward. The Second Circuit twice shut down the DOJ’s requests to extend its reach to offshore servers. Even as the Microsoft case was still being litigated, other courts were coming to contrary decisions about data stored overseas.
The target in these cases was Google. Google’s data-handling processes contributed to the adverse rulings. Unlike Microsoft — which clearly delineated foreign data storage — data and communications handled by Google flow through its servers constantly. Nothing truly resides anywhere, a fact the DOJ pressed in its arguments and the one two judges seized on while denying Google’s warrant challenges.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will be needed to tie these disparate decisions up into a cohesive whole.
Or not. Rule 41 changes that went into effect at the beginning of this year remove a lot of jurisdictional limitations on search warrants. On top of that, the DOJ has been angling for expanded overseas powers, pushing Congress towards amending the Stored Communications Act.
This, of course, is what the Second Circuit Appeals Court told the government to do: take it up with legislators. But if litigation is a slow process, legislation can be just as time-consuming. The DOJ wants permission now and the Supreme Court gives it the best chance of being allowed to grab communications stored outside of the United States using a warrant signed by a magistrate judge anywhere in the US.
In the meantime, the DOJ will continue to pursue amendments to the Stored Communications Act — a law it’s already taken advantage of, thanks to it being outdated almost as soon as it was implemented. Further rewriting of the law in the DOJ’s favor would allow US law enforcement to become the world’s police, serving warrants in the US to gather documents stored around the globe.
While this may seem like a boon to law enforcement, it should be approached with extreme caution. If this becomes law (rather than just a precedential court decision) the US government should expect plenty of reciprocal demands from other countries. This would include countries with far worse human rights records and long lists of criminal acts not recognized in the US (insulting the king, anyone?). The US won’t be able to take a moral or statutory stand against demands for US-stored communications that may be wielded as weapons of censorship or persecution against citizens in foreign countries. Whoever ends up handing down the final answer — the Supreme Court or Congress — should keep these implications in mind.