STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Every day, Americans send information to the cloud. That smartphone in your hand, or in the hand of the person next to you, is uploading photos and messages and all sorts of information. It’s not literally in a cloud, but in a data center somewhere in the world so that you have a backup and some extra memory in your device. A case before the Supreme Court today asks if the U.S. government can use search warrants to get at that data even when it’s stored outside the country. Here’s NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The case involves a federal drug trafficking investigation in which U.S. law enforcement authorities obtained a search warrant for all data associated with the suspect’s Microsoft account. Microsoft refused to give the feds the email content, which was stored in a data center in Ireland. If the company is forced to turn over the material, it could be fined three point six billion dollars for violating the European Union’s new privacy protection rules. The company argues there’s no legal authority for the U.S. warrant because it was issued under a law enacted by Congress in 1986, a full five years before the World Wide Web was even created.
The only legal way to obtain this information, the company says, is through an international treaty between the U.S. and Ireland. But the U.S. government argues that process is extremely slow, cumbersome and would prove highly impractical, given that some providers break up data and move it around the world in pieces. Microsoft replies that it would set a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow if the U.S. government can reach into foreign territory to retrieve a user’s private emails, even with a warrant. After all, the company asks, if the U.S. government can reach into data stored in foreign countries, why couldn’t Russia or Iran reach into emails stored in the U.S.?
The U.S. government replies that any Microsoft email content stored in other countries can easily be transferred back to the U.S. by the click of a computer located at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., thus making the focus of such warrants domestic, not international. The case has huge potential ramifications for international law relations between countries and for the global economy. A decision is expected by summer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.