In what may seem to be a case of déjà vu for the tech industry and, in particular, email service providers, Google has now found itself on the receiving end of an FBI search warrant which orders the company to turn over emails stored on servers outside the United States. The order was made under the Stored Communications Act in relation to an FBI investigation into domestic fraud.
Microsoft has fought a long battle with the US Government which started back in early 2014 after a district court ordered the Redmond giant to hand over emails and personal data held in Ireland relating to a US-based customer. Despite an initial setback with a court ruling which upheld the original order, the company managed to win on appeal with the decision later reinforced after a tied vote of 4-4 by the US Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit last month. Subsequently, dissenting judges called on the US Supreme Court and Congress to review the case.
In what would seem to run contrary to the precedent set by the Microsoft case, US Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter ruled on Friday that retrieval of emails from an offshore server did not constitute an act of seizure. The judge asserted that there was "no meaningful interference" with the account holder's "possessory interest" and that "the actual infringement of privacy occurs at the time of disclosure in the United States."
Google, in its court papers, mentioned that it could sometimes break up emails into pieces stored on multiple servers as a measure to improve network performance. However, this could leave the company potentially unable to determine exactly where requested information actually resided at a given point in time.
Unsurprisingly, Google is gearing itself up to fight the decision and said:
"The magistrate in this case departed from precedent, and we plan to appeal the decision. We will continue to push back on overbroad warrants."
While the wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine, the progress and outcome of the case will be of great interest to privacy advocates, law enforcement, and legislators.