Thu, Mar 01, 2018 - Page 6 News List

US justices nearing decision in e-mail case


People line up outside the US Supreme Court in Washington on Tuesday before oral arguments in the US versus Micosoft case.

Photo: AFP

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared ready to allow the government to force US technology companies to hand over e-mails and other digital information sought in criminal probes, but stored in the Internet cloud outside the US.

The justices heard arguments in a dispute between the administration of US President Donald Trump and Microsoft Corp over a warrant for e-mails that were sought as part of a drug trafficking investigation.

Microsoft refused to turn over the e-mails, because they are stored on a company server in Dublin, Ireland, and the warrant does not apply abroad.

However, several justices suggested they agreed with the government’s argument that the focus should be on Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. That is where a computer operator would retrieve the e-mails and hand them over to federal authorities.

The case arose when the US Drug Enforcement Administration obtained a warrant for the e-mails under a 1986 law. Microsoft turned over some information, but went to court to defend its decision not to hand over the e-mails from Ireland.

The federal appeals court in New York agreed with the company that the 1986 Stored Communications Act does not apply outside the US.

The arguments highlighted the difficulty that judges face in trying to square decades-old laws with new technological developments.

“I recognize we have a difficult statute here,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.

When the law was written, “no one ever heard of clouds. This kind of storage didn’t exist,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg and other justices said it would be better if Congress updated the law. US Senator Orrin Hatch, who was present, is a sponsor of a bipartisan proposal that has been introduced in Congress.

The bill known as the Cloud Act has the support of both the Trump administration and Microsoft.

However, lawyers on both sides said the court should decide the case before it, not wait for Congress.

US Department of Justice lawyer Michael Dreeben told the court that Microsoft voluntarily moved the e-mails to a server in Ireland and could just as easily retrieve them, adding that the government had a warrant, “the gold standard” for addressing privacy concerns.

“It’s not a case about privacy,” Dreeben said.

Joshua Rosenkranz, representing Microsoft, described how much physically has to happen in Ireland when someone at Microsoft headquarters issues a command to retrieve e-mails from the Dublin server.

Even after the e-mails are found, the data “runs through Ireland on hard wires and then over the Atlantic,” Rosenkranz said.

“Does some person have to be there?” Kennedy asked.

No, a robot handles the work in Ireland.

“I guess my imagination is running wild,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said to laughter. “Who tells the robot what to do?”

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