On Friday, Feb. 3, occurred a potentially major challenge for privacy advocates, when a U.S. judge ordered Google to cooperate with FBI search warrants and provide access to user emails stored on servers outside of the U.S.
US Judge Orders Google To Collaborate With FBI
According to Gizmodo, in a similar case recently, an appeals court ruled in favor of Microsoft, so this new case is certain to spark a fight. U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter in Philadelphia ruled that Google should transfer emails from a foreign server in order to make it possible for FBI agents to review them locally. The case involves a domestic fraud probe
The judge said that this is not qualifying as a seizure because there is no interference with the "possessory interest" of the account holder in the data in question. Google was counting on a Jan. 24 ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, expecting that it would not rehear the Justice Department's arguments for why it needed access to user data from foreign servers. Many believed that decision in the case of Microsoft servers located in Ireland might create some legal guidance for similar cases.
With the current legal system, isn't easy attempting to determine ownership over abstract property in the form of data. According to CNET, Judge Rueter is arguing in the ruling against Google that even though the actual infringement of privacy would occur only at the time of disclosure in the U.S. However, it is not clear if that decision means evidence retrieved from a foreign server disclosed in a U.S. court of law would be a violation of privacy.
Judge's Decision Is Controversial
Privacy advocates and tech companies have been pushing for more clarity over the years. The public opinion has been outraged when it was previously revealed that Yahoo has helped an American intelligence agency to spy on its customers' emails. In October 2016, a Reuters report claimed that Yahoo agreed to secretly search all its users' incoming emails on behalf of either the National Security Agency or the FBI.
Even if Yahoo stated that it did not break any law, the disclosure set off shockwaves in the tech sector. Then, in January, in another controversial case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Justice Department's arguments in asking access to user data from foreign servers.
Both Google and the Microsoft cases relied on warrants issued under the 1986 Stored Communications Act. But since then, a lot has changed about the flow of information. Tech giants have to work in a globalized world with competing for international privacy laws.
In case that Judge Rueter's opinion stands, it could mean a violation of international treaties by the United States. On its turn, Google argued that it might not even know where it stores the information that's being requested because pieces of emails are stored on different servers in order to streamline its network performance. In a statement released by the search giant, it is stated that the company plans to appeal the decision.
Congress would have to act in these types of cases if they do not make their way to the Supreme Court. It is difficult to predict what option might work out, with the chaotic state of the U.S. government at the moment.