Only a company the size of Microsoft would be willing to take on the U.S. government over email privacy. That's right: The next time you login to Outlook, think about how one of the most famous companies in tech has your back. Well, at least for now.
I won't get into the constitutional law aspects of the case, and that would be quite dull anyway. Suffice it to say, there's an outdated act from 1986 that dictates how the government can spy on us. A recent amendment to the law now requires that investigators issue a court order. If you're doing something illegal, the feds can get a warrant to see your archive. In some cases, this include a gag order so that tech companies don't have to let you know there is an investigation.
That's the part Microsoft is fighting. There's a been a recent rise in judicial orders--Microsoft says there have been almost 6,000 of them in the last 18 months alone and, of those, 2,600 include a gag order. When the gag order is issued, there's no way for the customer to know how long it lasts or when Microsoft has the right to notify the customer about an inquiry.
What's really going on with all of this?
If you've been following the recent encryption battle between the FBI and Apple, you know the real war is between privacy and security. They are both important, but you can't always have both. In an extreme case, such as when the now deceased San Bernardino shooter used an iPhone to communicate about his plans, the government wants to make us more secure. They want to reduce the likelihood of another attack. Apple wants to protect your privacy. If they create software for the FBI to hack a phone, there's no control over how they use it.
Microsoft has a similar strategy. They want to protect the privacy of all users. If there are gag orders and warrants, customers who are not doing anything illegal might start wondering if it's better to avoid the cloud for business email altogether. More importantly, they might wonder about running their business in the cloud, using it for apps and cloud storage. It might seem like Microsoft is splitting hairs and is thinking about their own bottom line, but the biggest companies in tech know that this is about long-term trust in their most important products and services.
One of the most interesting things about the ongoing privacy battle is that we haven't heard too much from Google, at least in terms of making headlines. There are over 1B people using Gmail now. Microsoft has, at least in part, taken up this fight over email privacy as a way to defend the customers still using Outlook.com and other email services. It's easy to have the perception these days that "businesses use Microsoft, everyone else uses Google" even if that way of classifying people is not even remotely possible. If this latest case does anything, it puts Microsoft out in the open again, battling for privacy and customer rights.
That can only be a good thing.