Weeks after Apple and the FBI both sort-of-not-really won their battle over the San Bernardino iPhone, and long before any clear indication of who’s winning the war, Microsoft waded into the surveillance vs. privacy vs. security fray with its own lawsuit against the government.
Like other companies who use US-based infrastructure to carry electronic communications, Microsoft—which powers 400 million active inboxes through its Outlook email platform, including the majority of Fortune 500 email accounts—has to grant the government access to its users’ information and messages when presented with a warrant. In its suit, Microsoft contends that it should be allowed to tell users when their email accounts have fallen under government surveillance.
On its surface, the lawsuit doesn’t seem to hold a whole lot of merit. Imagine if the phone company (back in the days where there was “the phone company” managing your landline) told every customer when their line had been tapped. It sort of defeats the purpose of the surveillance.
And like wiretaps on phones, surveillance of emails and other electronic communications is only allowed if a judge approves a warrant…NSA activities notwithstanding. If Microsoft is aware that an email user is under surveillance, a warrant was obtained to monitor that specific user’s email. Due process was, at least in theory, followed.
But the issue goes deeper than that, both historically in the US and currently on a global level.
Emails Aren’t Phones
When the Electronic Communications Privacy Act was passed in 1986, email and the Internet were still in their infancy as far as the public at large was concerned. The amount of information that the average person now sends and receives electronically on a daily basis was unfathomable then.
The means of transmission have changed dramatically, too.
Neither the devices we use nor the infrastructure that carries our messages are location-dependent. The email you sent this morning might be routed completely differently than the ones you send this afternoon; your phone might switch between nearby towers depending on a number of factors; your communications can easily be monitored from anywhere in the world by anyone who can patch into the data centers, nodes, and other technical wonders that carry your messages and that I (and most others) don’t fully understand.
You used to actually have to put a physical device on a phone or phone line in order to “tap” it and listen in on calls. Now you just need a password. And because it’s way easier for the government to perform surveillance, they’ll do it a lot more often if additional legal checks aren’t put in place.
That’s what Microsoft’s suit is about, and that’s why we’re seeing similar issues worldwide.
The United Kingdom is powering a bill through Parliament that could allow sweeping surveillance of electronic communications for both criminal suspects and ordinary citizens.
I don’t think it’s overly-Orwellian to suggest that technological advances have presented governments with whole new ways of controlling a population. After all, information is ultimately about control—we learn things so we can manipulate them, whether it’s knowing how to build a house, write a novel, raise a child, leave a lover slightly less disappointed than the last time, etc.
The more we know, the more we can influence certain outcomes. For world governments, we are those outcomes, and they’re trying to learn everything they can about us.
They might not exactly be a champion of the little people, but in this case Microsoft is clearly voicing a populist and progressive message.
And that might be the scariest thing I’ve ever written.ECPA-Complaint
Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.
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