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Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Cisco join Google in DoJ data row

Lady Justice On The Old Bailey, London

Google was looking very lonely in its fight against the US Department of Justice, but now fellow tech giants Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Cisco have come to the rescue.

The on-going battle over access to an individual’s personal data has been raging on for some time with various tech giants exchanging blows with the US government and its intelligence agencies. Most recently, Google has been ordered by US Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter to share information with intelligence agencies, irrelevant to the fact it is stored in a non-US data centre, which has riled the tech industry’s army of lawyers.

This latest development sees Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Cisco file an amicus brief, a document filed by people or companies who have an interest in the case, but aren’t directly involved, to support Google’s resistance. Google has taken over as the target of the US DoJ, after Microsoft took flak last year, but support of some of the worlds’ most powerful organizations will be welcomed, as the battle to ensure data privacy rages on.

The basic argument taken from the amicus brief is focused on The Stored Communications Act (SCA), the piece of legislation on which the US government’s argument is built upon. The filing claims the SCA does not authorize warrants for seizure of private emails stored in a foreign country.

“The Government agrees that the SCA gives no such indication, and so does not extend extraterritorially,” the brief states. “Simply put, nothing in the SCA purports to regulate or protect in any way private communications stored overseas. The question here, then, is whether forcing a provider to execute a warrant in another country constitutes an extraterritorial application of the SCA.”

This in itself is one of the main problems with the legislation underpinning data protection and privacy in the US; the SCA was initially written in 1986, with current rulings driven by case law and court interpretation.

Yes, there have been amendments, most recently The USA Patriot Act, but the foundation of the law was written years prior to the mass penetration of the internet and cloud computing. Numerous critics have attacked the legislation on the ground it was adequately written to accommodate the development and acceleration of technology, and well as the fundamental importance of the digital economy.

The document actually claims to have a huge amount of support as the industry hits back at greedy government fingers. Aside from the five tech heavy weights, support is also counted from 28 technology and media companies, 23 trade associations and advocacy groups, 35 of the nation’s leading computer scientists, and the Republic of Ireland.

While it isn’t 100% clear what data Google would have to hand over following the ruling, the advertising giant has vowed to fight the order. The support of often feuding competitors just shows how important countering intelligence agencies influence is to Silicon Valley, as well as other nations around the world.

“Our sister nations clearly view US warrants directing service providers to access, copy, and transmit to the United States data stored on servers located within their territory as an extraterritorial act on the part of the US government,” the brief states.

“Indeed, they view this as an affront to their sovereignty in much the same way that physically conducting law enforcement activity on foreign soil would violate their sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The end of this highly controversial argument is unlikely to come at any point in the near future, though the ripples of consequence could be wide-ranging and violent. Should the DoJ be victorious in its cause, US intelligence agencies would be in a solid position to force US cloud companies to hand over data in a variety of circumstances.

These companies would include AWS, Google, Microsoft and IBM. Together, all four now account for 63% of worldwide public IaaS and PaaS revenues. That’s a huge amount of information, on an astronomical number of people around the world. Governments should not be allowed to freely access this amount of information on foreign citizens, with what appears to be little justification or accountability.

While there are likely to be data privacy advocates in these organizations, let’s not forget these are profit-driven machines. Yes, fighting the battle for the man on the street is a worthy cause, but the commercial consequences of losing this clash could be disastrous for Silicon Valley on the whole.

Should the DoJ complete its quest, how many international companies would use a US cloud provider knowing the access US intelligence agencies have? The consequence could be a shift in cloud power away from Silicon Valley in an effort to ensure data sovereignty and boundaries.

The stakes are certainly high in this game.


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