Microsoft Fights Search Warrant Seeking Email Data Stored on Overseas Servers

Img_51614_critical-data-centre-at-uni-of-hertfordshire.jpegThe software company Microsoft has been at the center of a dispute with the federal government over the government’s authority to seize digital evidence. Federal investigators tried to execute a search warrant for email data stored on Microsoft servers physically located in Ireland. A magistrate judge denied Microsoft’s motion to quash the warrant but stayed its order pending an appeal. In re a Warrant to Search a Certain E-Mail Account Controlled and Maintained by Microsoft Corporation (“Microsoft“), No. 1:13-mj-02814, mem. and order (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 25, 2014). Several other technology companies joined Microsoft in opposing the search warrant. A district judge affirmed the magistrate’s order and lifted the stay, but Microsoft continues to refuse to comply with the warrant. An appeal is now pending. Microsoft Corp. v. United States, No. 14-2985, am. notice of appeal (2nd Cir., Sep. 10, 2014).

The case involves Microsoft’s web-based email services, which it operates under domain names like Hotmail.com and Outlook.com. Users can access their email accounts from a web browser on almost any device connected to the internet. Microsoft stores email messages on servers at data centers located both within the United States and in other countries. The company tries to store a user’s data at the data center located closest to him or her. A magistrate judge issued a search warrant to federal investigators in December 2013, seeking data relating to a specific email account. When Microsoft realized that the data covered by the warrant was located on servers in Dublin, Ireland, it filed a motion to quash the warrant “to the extent that it directs the production of information stored abroad.” Microsoft, mem. and order at 5.

The magistrate, in ruling on the motion to quash, noted that the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-12, allows the government to obtain electronic communications data by warrant, subpoena, or court order. The question for the court was whether the servers’ location outside of the United States put them outside of the federal government’s jurisdiction. The magistrate held that the servers were within the government’s jurisdiction under the SCA. While the servers were located in a foreign country, the judge found that the controlling factor was that they were controlled from Microsoft’s offices in the U.S.

The district judge affirmed the magistrate’s order on July 31, 2014 and lifted the stay on August 29. Microsoft had already filed an appeal with the Second Circuit on August 12. It also stated publicly that it would not comply with the search warrant, maintaining that the servers’ location in Ireland is the key factor. The technology companies Apple, AT&T, and Cisco filed amicus briefs in support of Microsoft’s position. Microsoft agreed to the entry of a contempt order against it in early September, stating that this would prevent any delay in the appeal.

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More Blog Posts:

Federal Magistrate Judges Are “Revolting” Against Overbroad Search Warrant Requests for Electronic Evidence, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 15, 2014
Police Need a Warrant to Search Cell Phones During an Arrest, Supreme Court Rules, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 28, 2014
Court Grants, then Stays, Preliminary Injunction in Case Alleging that NSA Metadata Collection Violates Fourth Amendment, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 20, 2013
Photo credit: By Wikieditor243 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons