Microsoft has successfully resisted an attempt by federal agents to gain access to email data stored on servers in Dublin in the latest round in a controversial legal battle. US courts are not always shy about extra-territorial application of their laws. But a recent ruling of a federal appeals court reverses an earlier decision to allow access to email servers in Ireland under a 30-year old statute.
The search warrant
US law enforcers had applied for a search warrant in 2013 under the Stored Communications Act of 1986 to collect evidence relating to a narcotics case. The nationality and location of the owner of the email account are not revealed, but Microsoft’s cloud storage system generally stores communications at a datacentre physically close to the customer to reduce network latency.
The 2014 rulings – warrant upheld
Microsoft produced some US-held data, but it argued that legislators had never intended the SCA to be applied to data stored outside US borders.
In 2014, the ruling of a district court magistrate upholding the warrant was greeted with widespread concern. Microsoft’s appeal to the district court failed, the judge concluding that so long as no federal agents set foot on Irish soil there was no unlawful extraterritorial action. Microsoft in the US was able to access the Irish-stored data and so could be compelled to provide it.
The 2016 ruling – warrant quashed
Now three appeal court judges have agreed in overturning the 2014 decision. Although the SCA was passed at a time when the world was very different, the judges concluded that emails stored in the cloud still have a physical location. The US authorities could make use of international channels to access data held in other countries.
A long list of technology companies, the Irish state and civil liberties organisations, fearful of the implications if the warrant were upheld, had supported Microsoft’s position. The ruling has been met with relief. It sits rather better with the recently agreed EU-US Privacy Shield than the earlier decision to require disclosure.
The US Department of Justice is said to be considering its options, and so a further appeal is possible.