Microsoft isn’t backing down from its position on snooping on Hotmail and Outlook accounts.
But now, the company says it will “strengthen” the process for such searches of user accounts, according to a blog post by its deputy general counsel and VP John Frank.
Privacy issues came to light this week when it was revealed that Microsoft investigated a blogger’s Hotmail account without a court order to figure out who was sending him leaked Windows 8 software. (It turns out it was a Microsoft employee.)
Responding to plenty of complaints, Microsoft’s Frank laid out some stricter rules Microsoft will follow before it conducts investigations on its customers’ data. Microsoft won’t conduct a search unless it is a situation that justifies a court order; it will use a separate legal team to “assess the evidence” justifying a search; it will only look for data relevant to the investigation, under the supervision of counsel; and finally, it will reveal the number of these searches, as well as the number of affected customers, in its annual transparency report.
While the idea of an email provider searching through customer email seems somewhat shocking, Microsoft has always made its position clear in Hotmail’s Terms of Service:
We may access or disclose information about you, including the content of your communications, in order to: (a) comply with the law or respond to lawful requests or legal process; (b) protect the rights or property of Microsoft or our customers, including the enforcement of our agreements or policies governing your use of the Service; or (c) act on a good faith belief that such access or disclosure is necessary to protect the personal safety of Microsoft employees, customers, or the public.
It’s also worth noting that Google and most other big technology companies have similar disclaimers in their service terms. Microsoft just happens to be the one under the microscope at the moment.
While the announcement is a good gesture by Microsoft, we’ll have to wait and see if the company fulfills its promises. The biggest change, which should be helpful for future investigations, is the addition of a separate legal team. That could ultimately hold Microsoft more accountable, in lieu of an actual court order.