Security

Microsoft predicts a grim future if the government keeps collecting data illegally

Above: Microsoft's Brad Smith.

Image Credit: Microsoft

We’re facing a “bleak” future if more isn’t done to protect individuals’ private data. That’s what Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said today.

Smith has implemented a months-long public campaign to pressure Congress into taking significant steps toward reserving a user’s right to his or her private information. The United States has already done a few small things to stop the U.S. National Security Agency and other government agencies from unlawfully collecting data, but as a whole, the government must go even further, Smith said at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Smith called on Congress to stop “the unfettered collection of bulk data” by reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA Court.

“I want law enforcement to do its job in an effective way pursuant to the rule of law. If we can’t get to that world, then law enforcement is going to have a bleak future anyway,” Smith said. “It needs to be well-designed regulation, it needs to be thoughtful, it needs to be balanced, but we cannot live in the Wild West when we’re talking about information that is this important to people.”

Edward Snowden unveiled the NSA’s snooping practices to the American public back in 2013. Like Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 released Vietnam War documents to the New York Times, Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA who had been working at the NSA at the time of the leak, will go down in history as unveiling some of the most significant and top-secret pieces of information in U.S. political history.

Snowden consistently hoped that people would focus less on what he did and more on what the NSA documents revealed, which was information about espionage against U.S. adversaries, domestic spying, and actions that specifically targeted U.S. allies.

Whether or not you believe Snowden is a traitor or a man deserving of a heroic title, the issue of the U.S. government having access to citizens’ private information is increasingly pressing, especially as more and more people become connected to the Internet.

Smith estimates that “by the end of this decade there will be 50 billion devices connected to the Internet of things around the world.”

“We will enter a world where every thermostat, smoke detector, fire extinguisher, parking meter, traffic light, garbage can, and you name it, is a connected device,” he said.

Microsoft is currently engaged in its own privacy dispute. The company and its Web-based email service are up against a U.S. government search warrant for customer email information stored in a data center overseas in Dublin, Ireland.

In court papers filed June 6, Smith listed objections to this warrant, including that Congress has not been granted the authority to issue search warrants outside of U.S. territory. It also reads, “The government takes the extraordinary position that by merely serving such a warrant on any U.S.-based email provider, it has the right to obtain the private emails of any subscriber, no matter where in the world the data may be located, and without the knowledge or consent of the subscriber or the relevant foreign government where the data is stored.”

Thanks to the Internet, data is rapidly and effortlessly transported around the planet, hanging out in foreign data centers and traversing national borders easily. It takes no energy for a file to zip across the Web, which gives rise to concerns that U.S. law enforcement agencies are snooping where they shouldn’t be and treading on foreigners’ rights.

However, if Microsoft’s interpretation of this search warrant holds true, says U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York, people would be legally able to move other potentially incriminating data overseas to avoid legitimate law enforcement requests, which could cause other problems. In a court document, the government wrote that Microsoft’s position creates an absurdity.

“[Microsoft] stores email content overseas based on where its subscribers claim to live. Under Microsoft’s view … criminals using a U.S. service provider could avoid lawful process to obtain stored content in their accounts simply by representing falsely that they live outside the country,” the government wrote.

There are clearly many questions to be answered.

Snowden’s document release has even prompted inquiries about laws related to search and seizure. Due to rapid technological changes, it has become quite easy for the government to meddle in all kinds of locations and with all kinds of data, including email exchanges, photos, videos, and phone calls. Perhaps U.S. search and seizure policies need to change to adjust to the times.

Besides the privacy and search and seizure issues, there’s a trust and business component that Microsoft and other technological companies alike have to worry about.

“We are in a business that relies on people’s trust. We’re offering a world where you should feel comfortable about storing (your information) in the cloud. … You need to have confidence that this information is still yours,” Smith said.

On Microsoft’s TechNet blog, Smith criticized the U.S. government’s data interception practices, saying that the government needed to “reduce the technology trust deficit it has created.” Smith cites the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and asserts that citizens have a right to keep email communications private. He urged Congress to uphold these Constitutional privacy protections and adhere to rules established by the law.

Smith wants people to know what companies are doing with their data. He suggested a dashboard where users can look at the data that exists about them on the Web and how the data is being used. This could be a “way for people technologically to have control,” he wrote. It’s unknown if Microsoft is working on such a product.

More information:

Microsoft Corporation is a public multinational corporation headquartered in Redmond, Washington, USA that develops, manufactures, licenses, and supports a wide range of products and services predominantly related to computing through ... read more »

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