No one could have predicted the consequences of the ruling of a New York court made in November. What had at that point seemed like an innocuous and relatively routine request for the contents of a customer’s email address from Microsoft, to aid in a domestic criminal investigation should have and quickly forgotten. Of course this was not the case, Microsoft chose to enter into contempt of court and then launch an appeal rather than willingly hand over the information requested, now it is one of the premier privacy focal points of the year.
The issue was one of rights, and also of international treaties. When the court requested information, it was from an Irish citizen, and regarded data stored on a server on that country. If Microsoft were to hand over the data, they contend, not only would they lose consumer trust, but also the trust of the enterprise market. As they shift more of their business focus to cloud services, this trust is of particular importance to their future in this area.
Concern over this issue is not limited to the self-interest of Microsoft however, naturally the Irish government have a stake in the outcome of the case, which is why they have now issued an official response to the case. Data Protection minister Dara Murphy noted,
“The right of individuals to the protection of their personal data is an essential foundation for modern society and the growing digital economy. We must ensure that individuals and organisations can have confidence in the rules and processes that have been put in place to safeguard privacy. We have a mutual legal assistance framework in place for cooperation in criminal matters, which remains the preferred avenue for such cooperation, including for the transfer of data. Having engaged in detailed consultation with my colleagues in government, it was agreed that Ireland should submit an amicus curiae brief to the US court that focuses on the principles involved in this case and that points to the existing process for mutual assistance in criminal matters”
Microsoft have welcomed this move, for although it does not specifically condemn the intentions of the US government in this matter, it enshrines the importance of the privacy of the end user. This is a rare instance of a government making positive noises in this direction, rather than simply sifting through their citizens’ private data. This comes following the intervention of a large number of notable companies over this issue, which came out in support of Microsoft earlier in the month.
The implications of the precedent set by this case could potentially have enormous ramifications, given that this is the first time a private company has challenged the US government over privacy concerns. The results will resound worldwide, for if the government win they will have virtual carte-blanche to do as they wish with the private data of international users. A defeat would have to see a major shift in policy from Washington in this direction, reversing a trend that has continued to worsen with the continuing proliferation of the internet globally.
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