The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Tuesday in a digital privacy case that could have broad global consequences.
In United States v. Microsoft Corp., the court will decide whether a digital communications provider has to comply with a U.S. search warrant for user data if the information is stored outside of the country.
“The stakes are really high,” said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel and director of the Freedom, Security, and Technology Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “It’s going to set the tone for cross-border data demands on a global scale.”
This all began back in 2013, when prosecutors served Microsoft a warrant in Redmond, Washington, for emails and information associated with an account involved in a criminal drug-trafficking investigation. Microsoft turned over data it had stored on its servers in the United States, but some information was stored on a server in Ireland. Microsoft refused to turn over the foreign data.
A lower court judge initially approved the warrant, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected the warrant in favor of Microsoft (). Now it’s up to the Supreme Court to decide the case.
Microsoft argues U.S. law enforcement should not be able to access digital communications stored on servers outside the country. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and top lawyer, has said that allowing U.S. officials to seize emails stored overseas ignores borders, treaties, and international law.
The move could also put Americans’ emails at risk of seizure by foreign governments, he said.
“If the U.S. government can unilaterally use a warrant to seize emails outside the United States, what’s to stop other governments from acting unilaterally to seize emails stored inside the United States?” Smith wrote in a blog post in October.
Microsoft argues that the legislation the government is relying on, the Stored Communications Act of 1986, is too old and outdated to apply to modern internet infrastructure or cloud computing. Microsoft, Apple, Google () and other service providers store data in servers throughout the world that contain information from a global population.
Law enforcement and the Justice Department argue that Microsoft and other tech companies are harming criminal investigations by refusing to turn over cloud data. U.S. attorneys argue that it should not matter where the information is stored — if it can be accessed “domestically with the click of a computer mouse.”
Related: Supreme Court to rule if Microsoft must turn over emails stored overseas