In what appears to be an unprecedented amount of consolidation, Microsoft has garnered support from competitors and others involved in the tech sector, to challenge a search warrant from the U.S. Department of Justice. While it may be admirable, it can also be questionable, as some of the tech companies have not been totally transparent with their data collection activities. Recent revelations of the NSA spying activities, as revealed by ex-contractor Eric Snowden, may have deflected the concerns that users have had with the way the data generated is handled, and how personal information is collected on many of the social networking sites, as the battle of privacy and security appears to be expanding in different directions.
In Canada, the Supreme Court recently ruled that search warrants are no longer required by law enforcement to examine the cellphones of suspects. The ruling has been the cause of concern among privacy advocates, law enforcement and even those involved in the security industry, as it invokes the idea of a police state in which law enforcement have unbridled access to personal information. The response from law enforcement is that the information gathered is now indispensable in helping to solve crimes.
The case involving Microsoft runs along similar lines. About a year ago, the prosecutors in New York issued a search warrant for information on a server that Microsoft maintains in Ireland. The company refused, but a judge mandated that Microsoft must comply by handing over information which was required for a drug-related case. The warrant was challenged on the basis that the information was stored outside of the U.S. where the courts had no jurisdiction. The battle has raged on and in a recently signed AMICUS document, Microsoft has garnered support for its refusal from 28 media and technology companies and several renowned computer scientists and trade associations. Among the supporters are Cisco, eBay, Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, along with several news organization such as Fox News, Forbes, CNN and the Washington Post.
The arena and handling of digital data is uncharted territory and the government disagrees with Microsoft’s contention, stating that online data is much different information and should be handled differently. The warrant for digital content is handled by the federally managed Stored Communications Act, and the information requested in subpoenas must be provided, regardless of where the information is located.
While the battle rages on, the consumers appear to have very little or perhaps no input concerning the handling of information that may in part belong to them, despite the fact that they have been responsible for its generation. The question that is still unanswered is whose data is it? As a consumer, users are really generating the data to which the platforms, businesses and applications have control. The businesses such as Facebook, Google and others are entrusted with protection of consumer information, but history has shown that they cannot always be trusted to make the right decisions. Perhaps the fact that Microsoft has amassed some support from leaders in the tech industry may indicate that a new direction or path is being forged. What may be needed, is more transparency and complete disclosure of privacy and information handling policies of user-generated data.
Opinion by Dale Davidson