In the wake of last week's terror attack in London - in which four people were killed, and dozens injured - pressure has been growing from some government officials, and some media outlets, for technology companies to do more to support security services in their fight against terrorist threats.
The Daily Mail newspaper, for example, described Google as "the terrorists' friend" on its front page, for making it easy "to find a terror manual on how to use a car for mass murder" online.
UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the BBC on Sunday: "We need to make sure that organizations like WhatsApp, and there are plenty of others like that, don't provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other." She added: "We need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp." She also called on Apple CEO Tim Cook to "think again about other ways of helping us work out how we can get into the situations like WhatsApp on the Apple phone" - an implicit call for the company, and others, to create backdoors for encryption.
Prior to Rudd's comments, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith spoke with the UK's ITV News in an interview that the broadcaster released today. His comments suggest that Microsoft will be unlikely to comply with fresh requests for tech companies to provide unfettered access for authorities to users' private data and communications.
"Law enforcement needs information, sometimes it needs it very quickly to save lives," Smith said. "When we get those kinds of requests, or warrants, and when they are lawful, we act quickly. We can do so in a matter of minutes. But when governments go too far, we will say no."
He further clarified: "We will not help any government, including our own, hack or attack any customer anywhere. We will turn over data only when we are legally compelled to."
Microsoft has previously resisted demands from authorities to hand over customer data when it believes users' privacy is being threatened by overreaching investigative efforts. Earlier this year, for example, it won a second victory in the US Court of Appeals, as part of a long-running battle against the Department of Justice to provide a user's emails that were stored in a data center in Ireland. Other companies, including Apple, AT&T, Cisco and Verizon, supported Microsoft's position in that case.
Smith told ITV News: "As a company, we need to be trusted everywhere, and the only way that we can be trusted everywhere is if we put interests of our customers globally ahead, frankly, of individual interests of any single government." He also commented on the recent 'Vault7' revelations by WikiLeaks on how the CIA has gained access to a wide range of devices, using a variety of techniques.
"The reality is throughout the tech sector, we haven't yet started to receive information from Wikileaks. We'll all learn more when we get the information. So far we know the same things journalists do," he said, adding that "any day that we learn and read about more governments taking more steps to hack their way into private technology is a day our concerns should grow."
He also noted that "since last summer we've seen nation states, major governments attacking 60 of our customers in 49 different countries, hacking their way into their networks, accessing and in many instances stealing their email."
Last month, Smith called for a 'digital Geneva Convention' to "commit governments to protecting civilians from nation-state attacks in times of peace". He believes that tech companies should remain neutral parties in striking the right balance between user privacy and efforts to maintain national and international security.
"This is not a time of war, there should be limits," Smith said this week. "Governments have understood for centuries that they will spy on each other but that doesn't mean they should spy on private citizens."
Source: ITV News