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Microsoft Sues Justice Department Over Secret Customer Data Searches

Microsoft says in its suit that it received 5,624 federal demands for customer information over...

SEATTLE— Microsoft Corp. MSFT 0.02 % on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, challenging as unconstitutional the government’s authority to bar tech companies from telling customers when their data has been examined by federal agents.

The suit, filed in the federal court here, raises a fundamental question about the cloud computing era: Can the government force technology companies to remain silent about when and how federal agents search their customers’ data? Individuals would know if their home or hard drive were searched by investigators, but investigators now have the ability—and are using it in thousands of cases—to keep secret their searches of data stored on the cloud.

The filing sets the stage for another high-profile confrontation between the government and a high-tech giant, after the Justice Department’s February order that Apple Inc. AAPL 0.20 % bypass the security passcode on a terrorist’s phone. The agency dropped its demand on Apple last month after it cracked the phone with help from a third party.

Microsoft says in its suit that it received 5,624 federal demands for customer information in the past 18 months, and nearly half—2,576—came with gag orders preventing the company from telling customers the government was looking at their data. Although the company “always complies with legally binding orders,” it said that 1,752 of those secrecy orders had no time limit, so it might never be able to tell customers that the government obtained their digital files.

“(The) government seeks and executes warrants for electronic communications far more frequently than it sought and executed warrants for physical documents and communications—apparently because it believes it can search and seize those documents and communications under a veil of secrecy,” the suit alleges.

A representative from the U.S. government was unavailable for immediate comment.

While Apple increasingly is seen as a standard-bearer for tech users’ civil liberties, Microsoft too has been outspoken in its concern about government access to customer...


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