Microsoft joined other tech companies in calling on the U.S. government to let the company reveal more information about it handles national security requests for customer information.
In a letter today, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder or President Obama to get personally involved, saying “the Constitution itself is suffering.”
Smith detailed requests Microsoft had made to be allowed to divulge more information — requests that were either denied or is still being considered weeks after the request was made.”This opposition and these delays are serving poorly the public, the Government itself, and most importantly, the Constitutional principles that we all put first and foremost,” Smith said in the letter.
Tech companies, including Yahoo, Google and Facebook, have all asked to release more information since last month, when The Guardian broke the story of the U.S. government’s national security surveillance programs and tech companies’ involvement.
Last week, The Guardian published another story based on documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, saying Microsoft had allowed the U.S. government to intercept users’ communications, and had helped the National Security Agency circumvent the company’s own encryption.
The report also said Microsoft had worked with the government to allow the NSA easier access to its SkyDrive cloud storage service and that the NSA had boasted of being able to triple the amount of Skype video calls being collected.
In his letter to the attorney general today, Smith said Microsoft last week had sought permission to “publicly explain practices that are the subject of newly leaked documents that refer to Microsoft and have now been misinterpreted in news stories around the world.
That request was rejected.
In the meantime, Smith has written an official blog post addressing what he referred to as “significant inaccuracies in the interpretations of leaked government documents reported in the media last week.”
Among his main points:
- Microsoft does not provide any government with direct access to emails or instant messages, but it does have to comply with lawful government demands to turn over content for specific accounts, pursuant to a search warrant or court order.
- The company does not provide any government with the ability to break encryption in Outlook.com, nor does it provide the government with encryption keys. “When we are legally obligated to comply with demands, we pull the specified content from our servers where it sits in an unencrypted state, and then we provide it to the government agency,” Smith wrote.
- The company does not provide any government with direct access to SkyDrive, but, again, has to comply with legal government demand for data stored in SkyDrive.
- With Skype, too, the company divulges information only if there is a legal government order for information about specific accounts or identifiers. Smith did have a caveat of sorts, though, saying the company assumes “that all calls, whether over the Internet or by fixed line or mobile phone, will offer similar levels of privacy and security.”
Smith’s letter comes on the same day the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) granted a motion from Yahoo to declassify some legal briefs and court rulings requiring the company to comply with government requests for customer records.