Court Says Who Cares If Ireland Is Another Country, Of Course DOJ Can Use A Warrant To Demand Microsoft Cough Up Your Emails

from the say-what-now? dept

A NY judge has ruled against Microsoft in a rather important case concerning the powers of the Justice Department to go fishing for information in other countries -- and what it means for privacy laws in those countries. As you may recall, back in April, we wrote about a magistrate judge first ruling that the DOJ could issue a warrant demanding email data that Microsoft held overseas, on servers in Dublin, Ireland. Microsoft challenged that, pointing out that you can't issue a warrant in another country. However, the magistrate judge said that this "warrant" wasn't really a "warrant" but a "hybrid warrant/subpoena." That is when the DOJ wanted it to be like a warrant, it was. When it wanted it to be like a subpoena, it was.

Microsoft fought back, noting that the distinction between a warrant and a subpoena is a rather important one. And you can't just say "hey, sure that's a warrant, but we'll pretend it's a subpoena." As Microsoft noted:
This interpretation not only blatantly rewrites the statute, it reads out of the Fourth Amendment the bedrock requirement that the Government must specify the place to be searched with particularity, effectively amending the Constitution for searches of communications held digitally. It would also authorize the Government (including state and local governments) to violate the territorial integrity of sovereign nations and circumvent the commitments made by the United States in mutual legal assistance treaties expressly designed to facilitate cross-border criminal investigations. If this is what Congress intended, it would have made its intent clear in the statute. But the language and the logic of the statute, as well as its legislative history, show that Congress used the word "warrant" in ECPA to mean "warrant," and not some super-powerful "hybrid subpoena." And Congress used the term "warrant" expecting that the Government would be bound by all the inherent limitations of warrants, including the limitation that warrants may not be issued to obtain evidence located in the territory of another sovereign nation.

The Government's interpretation ignores the profound and well established differences between a warrant and a subpoena. A warrant gives the Government the power to seize evidence without notice or affording an opportunity to challenge the seizure in advance. But it requires a specific description (supported by probable cause) of the thing to be seized and the place to be searched and that place must be in the United States. A subpoena duces tecum, on the other hand, does not authorize a search and seizure of the private communications of a third party. Rather. it gives the Government the power to require a person to collect items within her possession, custody, or control, regardless of location, and bring them to court at an appointed time. It also affords the recipient an opportunity to move in advance to quash. Here, the Government wants to exploit the power of a warrant and the sweeping geographic scope of a subpoena, without having to comply with fundamental protections provided by either. There is not a shred of support in the statute or its legislative history for the proposition that Congress intended to allow the Government to mix and match like this. In fact, Congress recognized the basic distinction between a warrant and a subpoena in ECPA when it authorized the Government to obtain certain types of data with a subpoena or a "court order," but required a warrant to obtain a person's most sensitive and constitutionally protected information -- the contents of emails less than 6 months old.
The DOJ hit back earlier this month by basically saying, "yeah, whatever, let's pretend it's a subpoena and give us what we want already."
Overseas records must be disclosed domestically when a valid subpoena, order, or warrant compels their production. The disclosure of records under such circumstances has never been considered tantamount to a physical search under Fourth Amendment principles, and Microsoft is mistaken to argue that the SCA provides for an overseas search here. As there is no overseas search or seizure, Microsoft’s reliance on principles of extra-territoriality and comity falls wide of the mark.
Unfortunately, it appears that the judge just went with the DOJ's reasoning -- though, immediately stayed the ruling since Microsoft made it clear it plans to appeal. Judge Loretta Preska basically just upheld the magistrate judge's ruling that Microsoft could, in fact, be compelled to hand over data held overseas via a warrant under ECPA, the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act (which we've already noted has tremendous problems and needs to be reformed).

Beyond the problems this has for the 4th Amendment in the US, it's also going to create a mess in Europe, where they have much stricter data privacy rules, and where something like ECPA is clearly a problem. For the US to argue that it can make ECPA reach across the ocean into European servers is going to be a big problem -- especially at a time when Europeans are (rightfully) distrustful of the US government's ability to snoop on their data.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, data protection, ecpa, ecpa reform, email, eu, ireland, loretta preska, privacy, subpoena, warrant
Companies: microsoft


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  1. icon
    hydroxide (profile), 31 Jul 2014 @ 4:09pm

    Well, if she insists...

    on instigating a criminal conspiracy against European citizens, I'm sure there's a jail cell available for her in Europe. I hear the Dutch have to shut down prisons because they can't fill them.

    What's clear is that any employee of Microsoft Ireland is legally bound to tell MS in the US where they can shove their warrant OR subpoena, as NEITHER has any force whatsoever in Europe.

    There are procedures established through international law enforcement cooperation to get one's hand on such data in valid cases. This is merely an attempt by the DOJ to violate international and European law, and the court is aiding and abetting in that.

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