Under my thumb: Governments grapple with law enforcement in the virtual world

If FBI agents equipped with an American search warrant broke into a safetydeposit box owned by an American firm in Dublin to seize letters that might help catch a drug-dealer, it would provoke uproar. But that is essentially what the FBI wants to be able to do in the virtual realm. It has asked a court to order Microsoft, in its capacity as an e-mail provider, to hand over messages from a suspect in a drugs case that are stored in an Irish data centre. After two lower courts sided with the government, an appeals court in New York will rule soon on whether the firm must comply.Other governments are watching keenly, not only because they see their sovereignty threatened, but because America itself denies them what it now seeks. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), under which its government claims the right to demand the data held by Microsoft, also limits what American cloud providers can hand over without a warrant from an American judge. The sender or recipient of an e-mail can be disclosed, but not the text itself. “We would go crazy if China did it to us,” said Joshua Rosenkranz, Microsoft’s representative at a court hearing in New York last month.

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