Washington – Federal law enforcement agencies in the United States secretly request data from Microsoft users thousands of times a year, according to testimony to Congress by one of the company’s top executives.
Microsoft Vice President for Security and Customer Trust Tom Burt told members of the House Legal Affairs Committee that in recent years federal agencies have been submitting between 2,400 and 3,500 classified warrants to the company annually: between seven and 10 a day.
“The most shocking thing is how routine these secret orders become when law enforcement agencies target emails, text messages and other data stored in the American cloud,” Burt said, describing the widespread covert espionage as a major change in historical norms.
The relationship between law enforcement agencies and tech giants has attracted new attention in recent weeks with the revelation that attorney generals in the Department of Justice under Donald Trump, as part of investigations into the leaked news, obtained phone records not only of journalists, but also of members of Congress and their associates.
Microsoft, for example, was among the companies that released data under a court order, and had to wait more than two years before revealing it because of the gag order.
Microsoft chief Brad Smith has since called for an end to the overuse of secret orders, arguing in an op-ed in the Washington Post that “prosecutors are using too much technology to abuse our fundamental freedoms.” Attorney General Merrick Garland said his department will abandon the practice of confiscating journalists’ papers and will formalize that decision soon.
Burt is a witness at a legal committee hearing about potential legislative solutions to intrusive investigations into media leaks.
Burt said that while the revelation that federal prosecutors had requested statements from journalists and political figures came as a surprise to many Americans, the scale of the espionage is much greater.
He criticized prosecutors for instinctively seeking secrecy through vulgar requests that “simply allow law enforcement agencies to assert the conclusion that a secrecy order is necessary.”