Google Vows To Fight After Being Ordered To Hand Over Foreign Emails

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‘We will appeal,’ says Google after latest round of tech vs government court battles

Google has been ordered to comply with FBI search warrants for access to customer emails stored outside of the US, directly contradicting a similar federal appeals court case involving Microsoft.

Philadelphia U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter ruled in favour of the Stored Communications Act warrants submitted by the FBI as part of a domestic fraud probe on targets residing in the United States.

This goes directly against the result of a similar case from July, where the court ruled that Microsoft could not be forced to hand over emails and communications stored in servers outside of America.

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FBI investigation

According to Rueter, the Google probe doesn’t qualify as seizure because there was “no meaningful interference” with the account holder’s “possessory interest” in the data.

He continues: “Though the retrieval of the electronic data by Google from its multiple data centers abroad has the potential for an invasion of privacy, the actual infringement of privacy occurs at the time of disclosure in the United States.”

Speaking to Silicon, Google has vowed to appeal the ruling, with a spokesperson saying: “The magistrate, in this case, departed from precedent, and we plan to appeal the decision. We will continue to push back on overbroad warrants.”

According to court documents, Google has “partially complied” with the warrants by handing over data that it could confirm is stored on US servers, but argued that it was not required to do the same for data stored elsewhere, using the Microsoft case to justify its non-compliance.

The Alphabet subsidiary also argued that the warrant was “over broad because it does not describe with particularity which services there is probable cause to search”.

The issue is that Google often breaks up user files into multiple parts, which are then stored in different countries and frequently moved from one location to another to optimise network performance and reliability.

As a result, the locations in which specific data components are stored may change over time, meaning Google does not have “the capability, for all of its services, to determine the location of the data and produce that data to a human user at any particular point in time”.

Google also explained that each year it receives over 25,000 requests from federal, state, and local governmental entities seeking the disclosure of user data in criminal matters.

Tech vs government

This case highlights the continuing tension between technology companies and governments over access to user data, which came to a head last year when Apple refused to grant the FBI access to an iPhone belonging to a terrorist involved in the San Bernardino shootings.

At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that the FBI’s demand could set “a dangerous precedent” and described it as the “software equivalent to cancer”, resulting in an explosive battle which kick-started a global debate around data privacy.

Apple’s stance gained public support from many in the technology sector, as well as the UN’s human rights commissioner, so it will be interesting to see whether this latest order receives the same condemnation from those who stand to be affected.

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