The ruling helps ensure that U.S. law enforcement cannot issue search warrants for data stored overseas.
A federal appeals court ruled the U.S. government cannot search a server in another country, upholding the original verdict.
The case pertained to a Microsoft server in Dublin that was reportedly central to an ongoing narcotics investigation. Law enforcement wanted to access emails of a suspect that were stored on the server but Microsoft denied access.
Microsoft stated that U.S. law did not allow for search warrants to be issued for servers in other countries, even if it’s an American company and the data belonged to an American citizen. The company and its supporters believed that allowing such access would set a bad precedent.
The U.S. government had appealed the original ruling from July but on Tuesday, the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan declined to overturn the ruling. Law enforcement had employed the Stored Communications Act to issue the search warrant in the first place. They will now have to seek some other legal means to accessing the data. The Department of Justice had previously stated that the ruling would inspire more companies to store data outside the U.S. to avoid the reach of authorities.
The ruling was not a clean sweep, though. Judges ruled 4-4, meaning the original ruling would stand but opposition judges voiced their dissatisfaction. Some dissenting opinions from judges pointed out that the ruling could hamper law enforcement investigations in the future.
“We are reviewing the decision and its multiple dissenting opinions and considering our options,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said.
Microsoft’s chief legal officer Brad Smith, on the other hand, said the company welcomed the ruling. “We need Congress to modernize the law both to keep people safe and ensure that governments everywhere respect each other’s borders,” he said. Smith has been a regular critic of how the government conducts these kinds of searches, calling for better and clearer laws on the matter.
Microsoft has become one of the U.S. government’s most vocal critics of how it issues search warrants for data. In 2016, it launched a legal battle against the government to try and overturn a law that prevents service providers from informing users when their data has been seized by law enforcement. It has called the gag orders unconstitutional.