Talking tech since 2003

Brad Smith, head lawyer at Microsoft, spoke recently with the Wall Street Journal in this video about why the company has been vocal in opposing government demands for personal data.

In the video Smith pinpoints the heart of the problem that tech companies face. Since user information is stored in databases by the tech companies, when a government wants user information, the company is served a warrant, not the individual. Back in times of yore, people stored information in their houses in cabinets, and that’s where governments would have to go. The world hasn’t really adapted to the rapid pace of technology, and accordingly laws and how they apply has become muddled and unclear.

A prime example of this is a battle Smith was embroiled in last December. A New York federal prosecutor compelled Microsoft to hand over the emails of a user who was involved in drug-trafficking, but the emails were stored in a computer center in Ireland. Smith argued that this invalidated the warrant because U.S. law cannot be enforced beyond its borders. The prosectors argued that because Microsoft is a US company, it must follow US law. The court order does not seem to have been overturned.

The call for clarity of legality and the establishment of update rules is not only coming from Microsoft, Facebook is fighting 381 court ordered search warrants, and Google’s chairman called the NSA “outrageous” and “perhaps illegal” in an interview. But will this be enough? What kind of action has to take place in order to change how user data is dealt with? If tech companies didn’t store user data, there wouldn’t be this problem. But it comes with so many monetary and research benefits that it’s habit unlikely to be broken.

Many European companies have expressed unease about US companies and how they deal with privacy. Unfortunately, a lot of this seems to come from simple heritage. America and internet privacy is an issue still very much unresolved and this seems to be passed down to companies like Microsoft and Google. So what does this mean for the future? In terms of global expansion, is being a US tech company cumbersome? There are, of course, incredible benefits––but there exists the danger of governments using tech companies for political and judicial ends. This doesn’t seem to be a problem that’s going away, but instead only just coming into fruition.

Smith said it himself: “We believe consumers will only use technology if they trust it,” and he couldn’t be more right. So maybe this call to arms will work, maybe it will foster trust which will lead to greater change. It’s certainly an optimistic view to hold, but you can’t predict what will cause true change. You just have to ride the wave.

Source: WSJ

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