Microsoft sues gov’t agencies over anti-privacy laws

The battle for consumer privacy has gotten some key support from Microsoft, which is suing the U.S. government over a law that allows its agencies to inspect the emails and files of customers without asking permission from them.

The new Microsoft lawsuit comes on the heels of a protracted battle between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the FBI having insisted that Apple find a way to hack into the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. There have also been other instances of the tech space fighting the U.S. government, insisting that the Obama administration’s laws allow agencies to snoop into emails, financial data, and photos stored on smartphones, tablets, and the cloud.

According to Microsoft, the Justice Department is “abusing” the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in order to secure court orders requiring the company to furnish customer files from its servers, but not informing customers about it. Microsoft says that this alleged abuse is a violation of the company’s right to free speech, while also a compromise of customer privacy. The company also notes that the Justice Department has used this law to forcibly get customer information over 56,000 times over the past year and a half. And in close to half of those cases, a court asked Microsoft not to inform customers of what had happened.

“We appreciate that there are times when secrecy around a government warrant is needed,” read prepared comments from Microsoft President Brad Smith. “But based on the many secrecy orders we have received, we question whether these orders are grounded in specific facts that truly demand secrecy. To the contrary, it appears that the issuance of secrecy orders has become too routine.”

Smith also added in an interview that it decided to sue the government when officials threatened to hold Microsoft in contempt, for trying to challenge one of its orders not to inform customers.

“That caused us to step back and take a look at what was going on more broadly,” said Smith. “We were very disconcerted when we added up the large number of secrecy orders we’ve been receiving.”