Yesterday, Microsoft was vilified by The Sun newspaper in the UK, which accused the company of "refusing the [British] Home Secretary’s demand for more help on terror" following last week's terror attack in London, in which four people were killed - in addition to the terrorist himself - and dozens more injured.
Under the banner 'Micro-soft on terror', the article appeared to base its claims entirely on an ITV News interview with the company's President and Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith, which was released by the broadcaster yesterday. According to the newspaper, Smith "admitted [Microsoft's] global reputation was more important to them than helping state security services". It claimed that he had "sparked fury" by refusing Home Secretary Amber Rudd's request for more assistance from technology companies in dealing with terror threats, which she articulated in a separate interview with the BBC.
Buried in the article was the acknowledgement that Smith's interview was actually recorded on Friday, two days before Rudd spoke on the BBC, making it unclear how Smith could have "refused" a demand that hadn't yet been made. The Home Secretary said on Sunday: "We need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp," and 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".
Referring to the role that tech companies can play in supporting anti-terror measures, and what she believes to be a pressing need to ban end-to-end encryption in social media and messaging services, Rudd said:
The best people who understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff ever being put up, not just taken down, but ever being put up in the first place are going to be them.
The Sun focused on several of Smith's comments in his interview prior to Rudd's BBC appearance, including his statement that "Microsoft will not help any government, including our own, hack or attack any customer anywhere." But he also said: "We will turn over data only when we are legally compelled to."
"Law enforcement needs information, sometimes it needs it very quickly to save lives," he further clarified. "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."
In response to The Sun's article, Microsoft UK published a news release, which it also made available to the newspaper, making it clear that the company had in fact complied with "lawful" requests from authorities to hand over data to support its investigation of the recent attack. The statement began:
Microsoft confirmed that it had received last week lawful orders seeking email information relating to the terrorist attack in London, and that it had promptly provided the information requested. This follows prompt action when Microsoft responded to 14 lawful requests following the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris and the Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.
The press release also referred to a statement by Smith, confirming that Microsoft had "responded in under 30 minutes last week to verify that the legal order was valid and provided law enforcement the information that was sought." He added:
Our global team is on call 24/7 and responds when it receives a proper and lawful order. This of course is different from helping a government outside the rule of law to turn over private information or hack or attack a customer, which we’ve said clearly we will not do. We’re committed both to protecting public safety and safeguarding personal privacy, and we believe that proper legal process is the key to striking this balance.
The Sun dismissed Microsoft's response to its article, stating that "the company refused to discuss handing over any encrypted messages or data that could be key to a terror probe."