Great news: Microsoft has stepped up the tech industry's battle with the U.S. federal government for overreaching in its efforts to invade citizens' privacy. Microsoft has already been fighting the feds over their desire to access customer data held in overseas data centers, and it pressured the government to reform NSA surveillance abuses. Of course Apple has been fighting the feds very publicly over their desire to require backdoor access on all encrypted devices and communications.
Microsoft today sued the feds to allow Microsoft to notify its customers whenever the feds want access to the customers' data. Under the guise of national security rules, the companies managing customer data -- Internet service providers, telephone companies, cloud providers, social networks, websites, and so on -- can't tell customers when the feds access their data.
To alert their customers to the feds' snooping, some companies have tried the "warrant canary" strategy, in which their privacy disclosure statements suddenly remove any language about customer data confidentiality as a way to indicate the feds are getting access to that customer data. Reddit is the most recent example. But the warrant-canary strategy doesn't say who's being targeted, and it requires customers to pay close attention to privacy statements to see if there is a change.
Microsoft and Apple have long opposed the government spying that has spun out of control in the post-9/11 era. Like the rest of the tech industry, both companies have complied with legal information requests.
But both have seen the law get perverted to allow more and more federal privacy invasion of both individuals and companies, using very broad antiterrorism laws and secret courts that seem to rubber-stamp all requests. This week, two senators proposed more of the same overreach in the name of national security.
To many, what has been made legal is a severe violation of American's constitutional rights, from the right to privacy to the requirement for due cause for government intrusion to the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.
Microsoft and Apple have led the charge in their very public battles with the feds. The rest of the tech industry has been more cautious, though the outrageous demand from the FBI that Apple disarm its encryption on a terrorist's iPhone caused most to publicly side with Apple to safeguard encryption.
Perhaps because of their historic ties with the Defense Department, tech companies have long provided the government whatever it requested -- the telecoms in particular have been active participants in federal spying efforts. But that quiet acceptance seems to be dissipating, putting Silicon Valley in the odd position of defending our civil liberties. Even Google and Facebook, which make a living mining everyone's personal information, believe the feds have gone too far.
It's sad that corporations -- not the populace or their elected representatives -- have taken on that role, though we see the same civic responsibility occurring in other areas, such as combating antigay legislation throughout the nation.
Although they are the active combatants, it's not only Microsoft and Apple (and Edward Snowden) that have been carrying the fight to the feds, with the tech industry's support. Parts of the government have been fighting back, too. The Snowden revelations led to minor pullbacks of government spying actions, and there's a bill in the House this week to require warrants when the feds seek data stored in the cloud. But the government efforts are more about slowing or placing more rules around the overreach, rather than stopping it.
Still, a federal judge in Brooklyn, N.Y., demolished the government's rationale for seeking to force companies to break their own technology to access encrypted information. (The feds are appealing the ruling.)
Apple is a hero for fighting the feds so strongly over preserving the integrity of encryption. Microsoft is a hero for fighting the feds so strongly over preserving the integrity of our stored data.
As my colleague Paul Venezia recently wrote, "Fight, Apple, fight!" Let me add to that "Fight, Microsoft, fight!"