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Microsoft VP: Feds Send Company Thousands of U.S. Citizen Records Requests Each Year

Newsweek logo Newsweek 6/30/2021 Rebecca Klapper
a sign on the side of a building: This May 6, 2021 photo shows a sign for Microsoft offices in New York. Federal law enforcement agencies secretly seek the data of Microsoft customers thousands of times a year. That's according to congressional testimony being given Wednesday, June 30, by a senior executive at the technology company. © Mark Lennihan/AP Photo This May 6, 2021 photo shows a sign for Microsoft offices in New York. Federal law enforcement agencies secretly seek the data of Microsoft customers thousands of times a year. That's according to congressional testimony being given Wednesday, June 30, by a senior executive at the technology company.

Federal law enforcement agencies send thousands of secret requests for data on U.S. citizens to Microsoft, according to the company's corporate vice president for customer security and trust, who is giving congressional testimony on Wednesday.

Microsoft has received between 2,400 to 3,500 secrecy orders a year from federal law enforcement in recent years, the company's vice president Tom Burt will tell members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Burt said many Americans were shocked at finding out federal prosecutors had requested data on journalists and political figures, but the surveillance extended far beyond what had previously been revealed.

"What may be most shocking is just how routine court-mandated secrecy has become when law enforcement targets Americans' emails, text messages, and other sensitive data stored in the cloud," Burt said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

"The fact that law enforcement requested, and courts approved, clandestine surveillance of so many Americans represents a sea change from historical norms," Burt will say.

The relationship between law enforcement and Big Tech has attracted fresh scrutiny in recent weeks with the revelation that Justice Department prosecutors obtained as part of leak investigations phone records belonging not only to journalists but also to members of Congress and their staffers. Microsoft, for instance, was among the companies that turned over records under a court order, and because of a gag order, had to then wait more than two years before disclosing it.

Since then, Brad Smith, Microsoft's president, called for an end to the overuse of secret gag orders, arguing in a Washington Post opinion piece that "prosecutors too often are exploiting technology to abuse our fundamental freedoms." Attorney General Merrick Garland, meanwhile, has said the Justice Department will abandon its practice of seizing reporter records and will formalize that stance soon.

Burt is among the witnesses at a Judiciary Committee hearing about potential legislative solutions to intrusive leak investigations.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in opening remarks Wednesday that the Trump administration took advantage of outdated policies on digital data searches to target journalists and others in leak investigations. The New York Democrat said that reforms are needed now to guard against future overreach by Justice Department prosecutors.

"We cannot trust the department to police itself," Nadler said.

Burt said that while Microsoft Corp. does cooperate with law enforcement on a broad range of criminal and national security investigations, it often challenges surveillance that it sees as unnecessary, resulting at times in advance notice to the account being targeted.

As possible solutions, Burt said, the government should end indefinite secrecy orders and should also be required to notify the target of the data demand once the secrecy order has expired.

"Secrecy should be the rare exception, not the norm. Providing notice to an individual the government targets with a warrant or other demand for information is a critical protection against government overreach," he said. "Safeguarding one's constitutional rights requires knowledge that those rights are at risk. Without notice, an individual is left in the dark, unable to raise privileges or other objections that may be applicable, and unable to protect their rights in court."

a group of people sitting at a desk with a computer monitor: According to Microsoft's corporate vice president for customer security and trust, the company receives thousands of secret requests a year for information on U.S. citizens including their emails, text messages and cloud data from federal law enforcement agencies. Getty Images © Getty Images According to Microsoft's corporate vice president for customer security and trust, the company receives thousands of secret requests a year for information on U.S. citizens including their emails, text messages and cloud data from federal law enforcement agencies. Getty Images

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