America’s Founding Fathers would be surprised to see who has emerged to defend the Constitution from the post 9/11 thrashing it’s received in Washington, D.C.
As the nation’s press corps shrinks, Congress waffles and the U.S. Supreme Court slogs on with an unfilled seat, technology companies are stepping forward to protect citizens’ basic rights from overreaching federal police.
We’re now depending on Microsoft and Apple to fill this role, as well as update our software, store our files and deliver electronic messages.
That’s what happened last week when Microsoft sued the U.S. government.
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The Redmond company is arguing that the government is violating the First and Fourth amendments by secretly snooping into customer files and demanding that Microsoft say nothing about the intrusions.
In the decades since its antitrust troubles, Microsoft became more collaborative with government and a policy leader in the U.S. and abroad. Now it’s asserting that leadership more aggressively.
Last week’s lawsuit builds on Microsoft’s efforts to limit U.S. spying on data it stores for foreign customers overseas. It also comes as Apple battles federal demands to effectively break the security of its phones.
There may be times when the government must urgently, and secretly, access a phone or online server.
5,624 The number of federal demands Microsoft received for customer information or data between September 2014 and March 2016
Yet the feds appear to be having a free-for-all. They’re demanding that Apple help them compromise the security of iPhones even though a consultant was able to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone for them.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is besieged by demands for secret access to data it stores on behalf of consumers and businesses.
Between September 2014 and March 2016, Microsoft received 5,624 federal demands for customer information or data, according to its lawsuit.
Almost half of those requests, 2,576, were accompanied by gag orders barring Microsoft from telling people and companies that their files were compromised and shared with the government. That includes 1,752 secrecy orders with no time limit, meaning Microsoft can never reveal which files were accessed.
Some 25 of those perpetually secret searches were done in Western Washington, meaning the feds might have sifted through your personal email or your company’s spreadsheets and you’ll never know.
Unless, perhaps, Microsoft prevails and gets the U.S. Department of Justice or Congress to set reasonable limits on these secrecy orders. A good start is the Email Privacy Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, a Microsoft veteran.
The government secretly rooting through servers is more offensive than demanding access to a phone. You’ll probably know if you’re phone is taken but not when someone goes through your digital file cabinets. Online services, such as those run by Microsoft, store untold amounts of personal information, collected from all sorts of devices.
Microsoft is bold to sue the government, its largest customer. But like Apple, it’s not necessarily being altruistic.
To maintain the trust of customers, these companies must continually improve the security of their products and defend them against an endless stream of threats.
Sadly, this involves more than squashing software bugs and staying ahead of ill-meaning hackers. Nowadays, it also means keeping overzealous federal agents at bay.