WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal law enforcement agencies secretly seek out Microsoft customers’ data thousands of times a year, according to Congressional testimony Wednesday by a senior executive at the technology company.
Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for customer safety and trust, told House Judiciary Committee members that in recent years federal law enforcement has been treating the company with 2,400 to 3,500 confidentiality orders per year, or about seven to 10 a day. is.
Burt described widespread covert surveillance as a major shift from historical norms, saying, “Most shocking is the regular secrecy when law enforcement targets an American email, text message, or other sensitive data stored in the cloud.” How are the orders made?
Relations between law enforcement and Big Tech have come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks with the revelation that Trump-era Justice Department prosecutors have probed leaked phone records relating not only to journalists but to members of Congress and their employees. received as part of For example, Microsoft was among the companies that changed the record under a court order, and due to a gag order, had to wait more than two years before revealing it.
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Since then, Microsoft President Brad Smith has called for an end to the overuse of covert gag orders, arguing in the opinion of the Washington Post that “prosecutors are often exploiting technology to abuse our fundamental freedoms.” Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick Garland has said the Justice Department will drop its practice of seizing reporter records and will formalize that stance soon.
Burt is one of the witnesses on a judicial committee hearing about possible legislative solutions to the intrusion investigation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in opening remarks Wednesday that the Justice Department took advantage of outdated policies on digital data searches to target journalists and others in the leak investigation. The New York Democrat said the reforms were now needed to protect against future redundancies by federal prosecutors – a view also expressed by Republicans on the committee.
“We can’t trust the department over the police itself,” Nadler said.
Burt said that while federal prosecutors sought data about journalists and political figures, the revelation was shocking to many Americans, adding that the scope of surveillance is too broad. He criticized prosecutors for demanding confidentiality through boilerplate requests that “enable law enforcement to simply insist on a conclusion that a confidentiality order is necessary.”
Burt said that while Microsoft Corp. Collaborates with law enforcement on a wide range of criminal and national security investigations, often challenging surveillance it considers unnecessary, resulting in multiple advance notices for the account being targeted.
Among the organizations that attended the hearing was The Associated Press, which called on Congress to act to protect journalists’ ability to promise the confidentiality of their sources. Reporters must have prior information and the ability to challenge prosecutors’ attempts to seize the data, said a statement presented by AP general counsel Karen Kaiser.
Kaiser said, “It is essential that journalists are able to promise credibly confidentially to ensure that the public has the right to hold their government accountable and that government agencies and officials work more effectively and honestly.” There is the information needed to help do that.”
As a possible solution, Burt said, the government should end indefinite secrecy orders and also need to notify the target of data demand after the secrecy order expires.
This week, he said, prosecutors sought a blanket gag order targeting a single employee for a Microsoft data request affecting the government of a major US city.
“Without correction, abuses will keep happening and they will be in the dark,” Burt said.