U.S. Judge: Federal Government Can Seize Emails Even If They’re Stored Overseas

CREDIT: AP Photo - Ted S. Warren

Microsoft must hand over emails stored in its data center in Dublin, Ireland in accordance with a U.S. federal warrant, a judge ruled Thursday.

The ruling, handed down by New York federal district court judge Loretta Preska, determined the government could seize emails regardless of where they are physically stored as long as the company is based in the United States.

Thursday’s decision follows a months-long battle that started after a New York judge issued Microsoft a search warrant in December to submit copies of emails stored on its Dublin, Ireland servers. Microsoft contested the warrant with the support of other tech industry giants, arguing that search warrants for physical evidence could only be used within the United States borders.

Honoring the warrant would be akin to letting the U.S. government search someone’s home in another country because they are a U.S. citizen, Microsoft argued. The company also contended that it could only release emails to the Justice Department with Ireland’s consent via a legal treaty. Without it, the U.S. would violate Irish citizens’ privacy rights.

While Microsoft plans to appeal Thursday’s decision, the ruling builds on rising tensions between the U.S. and European Union over privacy rights. Citizens and governments abroad have been scrutinizing their relationships with U.S.-based tech companies after learning of the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) extensive surveillance program that tapped leaders’ phones and used backdoor access to popular websites to gain intelligence.

Tech companies have since tried to quash privacy concerns at home and overseas by speaking out against the NSA’s spying and government intrusions into digital property. But European authorities remain wary: Google was recently hit with stricter privacy regulations from the European Union, where it has to process and honor user requests to delete old or irrelevant content from its search engine. The tech giant is also facing tougher privacy regulations in Italy that would completely change how the company collects and stores data.

The threat of surveillance has been enough to tip the scales against some American companies abroad. Germany recently announced plans to end its contract with U.S. wireless carrier Verizon because the company seemed “legally required” to funnel information to the NSA. Facebook is also battling European lawmakers as it waits for the European Union’s high court to determine whether the company illegally let the NSA spy on European users. If Facebook loses the case, it could mean that any company that gave the NSA backdoor access — namely Microsoft and Google — through the NSA’s controversial PRISM program would have to abide by stringent privacy protections if they want to do business on European soil.

A similar fate could be realized if Microsoft loses its appeal to Thursday’s ruling. If the judge’s decision is upheld, U.S.-based companies may be forced to honor requests to search their servers or properties overseas, putting foreign customers within reach of American law enforcement regardless of international law.