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Microsoft Sues U.S. Over Gag Orders On Government Surveillance


Microsoft has sued the U.S. Justice Department over gag orders. They barred the company from telling customers when the government demands data on them. Microsoft says the secrecy violates its free-speech rights and customers' right to privacy. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: It's not OK for the government get your email or calendar or other data stored on Microsoft servers and keep it a secret forever. That's according to Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith.

BRAD SMITH: What's really striking to us is this. We've received over 2,500 of these secrecy orders over the last 18 months.

SHAHANI: That's an average of five a day every day.

SMITH: And over two-thirds of these secrecy orders have had no time limit at all. That means that we effectively are prohibited forever from letting our customers know that the government has accessed their emails.

SHAHANI: He filed a complaint in the district court in Seattle today, charging that the 1986 law on which these orders are based is unconstitutional. Smith says he recognizes that in some cases secrecy is needed - say, someone's safety could be put at risk or evidence could be destroyed. Microsoft is seeing a fairly striking increase, he says, in these secrecy orders.

SMITH: When people store their information on paper and put it in a desk drawer or in a file room in a business, then by definition, they knew when the government served a warrant because the government had to come see them in person.

SHAHANI: Now in the era of the Cloud with files stored in data centers, the government is going to Microsoft or Google or Amazon, and people don't know. The Microsoft suit is one of many standoffs between tech companies and law enforcement over the right to access data. Apple's fight with the FBI was another. Many prosecutors worry that new technologies are helping criminals to hide, to go dark. Smith says...

SMITH: I think it is ironic that law enforcement is complaining about going dark at the same that we're seeing the increasingly routine use of gag orders that is keeping the public in the dark.

SHAHANI: The Justice Department says it's reviewing the filing. Aarti Shahani, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.