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Supreme Court Will Hear High Stakes Email Privacy Case

REUTERS/Mike Blake

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a significant digital privacy case concerning the reach of warrants issued for electronic communications stored abroad.

The case asks the justices to decide if an email service provider must surrender electronic communications held in foreign countries for which a warrant was issued. Large scale email service providers including Microsoft and Yahoo! have refused to comply with warrants issued for certain communications held on overseas servers, according to a brief from the U.S. government urging the Court to take the case.

The federal government says U.S.-based service providers should comply with orders issued by American courts, even in cases where the relevant material is held abroad.

This case was occasioned in December 2013, when federal investigators obtained a warrant for emails held at Microsoft’s datacenter in Dublin, Ireland under the Stored Communications Act (SCA). The company refused to comply with the order. A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Microsoft, prompting the Department of Justice to seek Supreme Court review. Almost three dozen states supported the government’s petition to the justices.

The 2nd Circuit reasoned that the SCA does not apply beyond the territory of the United States.

“[T]he decision is causing immediate, grave, and ongoing harm to public safety, national security, and the enforcement of our laws,” the Justice Department wrote in its brief. “Under this opinion, hundreds if not thousands of investigations of crimes— ranging from terrorism, to child pornography, to fraud—are being or will be hampered by the government’s inability to obtain electronic evidence.”

The case, U.S. v. Microsoft, will be heard next year.

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