Microsoft Sues U.S. Department of Justice: Personal Data Not So Private After All

Last week, Microsoft decided to sue the U.S. Department of Justice. The reason: Continuing demands from the U.S. government to access sensitive, sometimes personal information from Microsoft Cloud, Outlook email, and computers with Internet access running any Windows operating system.

For anyone who still thinks his or her data is really private, consider the following. As it sits right now, anyone’s data is open fare for the U.S. government. No warrant is currently required if any branch of the United States government wants to access personal or business records. The government simply goes to Microsoft and asks for the release of any or all data about any person or business, easy as that.

Microsoft cannot even ask the government why it is required to hand over sensitive personal or business information. Translation: The government doesn’t even have to say it’s classified. All it has to do is ask.

This is what the software and computer hardware behemoth Microsoft is trying to correct. How far the Bill Gates company is willing to go to battle is the biggest question in this scenario. After all, some would say that fighting the government is a losing battle. It could be compared to the battle of David and Goliath, except that in most cases, it doesn’t have a happy ending, i.e., David loses. He doesn’t go anywhere. He is lucky if he ends up in Guantanamo, but at least he is still alive.

Now, let’s compare and contrast how the news about Microsoft suing the government has been handled in regular channels. First of all, the reaction was tepid. And from the looks of it, it may be because of the way the news or the message was written. According to Marshall McLuhan, the prophetic Canadian communications philosopher and scientist, “the medium is the message.”

The Verge writes, “Microsoft sues U.S. government over ‘unconstitutional’ cloud data searches. ‘People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud.’”

The case was filed by Microsoft on April 14 at a Washington District court. When a story of this magnitude gets handled in a very formal, almost cold manner, chances are there is someone giving the order to do so. Whether it’s the government itself or some private entity like Microsoft, no one knows for sure.

In a Microsoft Blog, Brad Smith, the company’s President and Chief Legal Officer writes, “We filed a new lawsuit in federal court against the United States government to stand up for what we believe are our customers’ constitutional and fundamental rights – rights that help protect privacy and promote free expression. This is not a decision we made lightly, and hence we wanted to share information on this step and why we are taking it.”

The smoking gun of the Microsoft allegation goes this way.

“The urgency for action is clear and growing. Over the past 18 months, the U.S. government has required that we maintain secrecy regarding 2,576 legal demands, effectively silencing Microsoft from speaking to customers about warrants or other legal process seeking their data. Notably and even surprisingly, 1,752 of these secrecy orders, or 68 percent of the total, contained no fixed end date at all. This means that we effectively are prohibited forever from telling our customers that the government has obtained their data.”

Notice how the high-ranking Microsoft official put a stress on the word “forever.”

Now, let’s juxtapose this piece of information with another recent event, i.e., the recent Apple case where the company was asked by the FBI to release personal iPhone information, courtesy of Fortune.

What all these developments tell ordinary folks is this: That personal data you are hiding in your cell phone or tablet isn’t safe. The government can hack into it at anytime it pleases. And it really doesn’t matter what network or company you are with in regard to your Internet service or your device.

How does that sound for privacy of information? Here’s what Microsoft’s Smith has to say.

“We believe these actions violate two of the fundamental rights that have been part of this country since its founding. These lengthy and even permanent secrecy orders violate the Fourth Amendment, which gives people and businesses the right to know if the government searches or seizes their property. They also violate the First Amendment, which guarantees our right to talk to customers about how government action is affecting their data. The constitutional right to free speech is subject only to restraints narrowly tailored to serve compelling governmental interests, a standard that is neither required by the statute being applied nor met by the government in practice here.”

In conclusion, American civil rights entities are asleep right now. Also, American consumers don’t know what they’re missing in regard to their Microsoft, Apple, Google and other related products and services. Whatever happened to “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance?”

While virtually everyone’s eyes are transfixed on the Panama Papers leak, a different kind of data breach is occurring on a desktop, laptop, tablet or cell phone somewhere. And, apparently, this breach has been going on forever, according to Microsoft. The American people just don’t know it yet.

[Photo by Stephen Barshear/Getty Images]