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Could the Supreme Court break the cloud?

In the U.S. vs. Microsoft Corp. case argued before the Supreme Court, the justices focused more on statutory interpretations related to law enforcement's power to access  communications stored abroad by American firms, than it did on the nature of cloud computing.

The case hinges on a reading of the Stored Communications Act, which allows law enforcement to access remotely stored communications. After the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2013 demanded access to customer emails, Microsoft declined to produce the files because the data was stored in Ireland. The company's position, which has been upheld by a ruling in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, is that U.S. laws don't apply to its Irish servers, and that the DEA would have to get access to the emails via an existing mutual legal assistance treaty with Ireland. To do otherwise, Microsoft argued, risks violating both customer agreements and Irish and European Union privacy law.

The cloud industry, largely led by U.S. providers, is concerned that an adverse decision will chill business opportunities in global markets.

The government's position, argued by Michael R. Dreeben, deputy solicitor general, is that the production of information by a U.S. company in a U.S. court is "domestic conduct," whether or not the production involves the company's overseas facilities.

A few justices at times seemed a bit daunted by the technological aspects of the case in their Feb. 27 questioning, particularly when it came to understanding what actually occurs when a U.S. law enforcement agency requires production of data stored abroad.

"A human being doesn't have to do it. It is a robot," explained Microsoft attorney E. Joshua Rosenkranz. "And if you -- if you sent a robot into a foreign land to seize evidence, it would certainly implicate foreign interests."

Rosenkranz also said that individual emails aren't broken up and stored in multiple sites across multiple countries. "No one actually breaks up the e-mail into shards, certainly not in this case. That's not what Microsoft does. And that is not, it turns out, what Google does either -- excuse me, that is not what the other service provider does either in the context of these other cases that are being heard here," he said.

Justice Samuel Alito wondered if the ephemeral nature of digital content should come into play. "The whole idea of territoriality is strained," he said during questioning. An email "physically exists on one or more computers somewhere, but it doesn't have a presence anyplace in the sense that a physical object has a presence someplace," he said.

Chief Justice John Roberts wanted to know if Microsoft could market services that guarantee users freedom from the reach of U.S. law enforcement as a feature.

Rosencranz rejected that suggestion, saying that, according to publicly disclosed information, just 54 emails out of 60,000 sought by government are shielded under the terms of the Second Circuit ruling. Rosenkranz said users seeking to do business outside the reach of law enforcement have other options.

"They use services that are sold specifically with the -- with the promise that we have no U.S. presence, and, therefore, you can trust us to keep it under lock and key from the U.S. government," Rosenkranz said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg raised the issue of impending legislation and wondered if it didn't make sense to wait for the law to be updated.

"If Congress takes a look at this, realizing that much time… and innovation has occurred since 1986, it can write a statute that takes account of various interests," Ginsberg said. "And it isn't just all or nothing. So wouldn't it be wiser just to say, 'Let's leave things as they are… if Congress wants to regulate in this brave new world, it should do it?'"

Dreeben appeared disinclined to let the wheels of Congress turn on the Clarifying Overseas Use of Data Act, sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Chris Coons (D-Del.)

"It's not been marked up by any committee. It has not been voted on by any committee. And it certainly has not yet been enacted into law," Dreeben said. "And I think this Court's normal practice is to decide cases before it based on the law as it exists, rather than waiting for an uncertain legislative process."

Rosenkranz said Microsoft doesn't want to see the Supreme Court innovate on the 1986 law just for the sake of deciding this case and establishing a legal framework for overseas data access.

"If you try to tinker with this, without the tools that -- that only Congress has, you are as likely to break the cloud as you are to fix it," he said.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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