A US judge ruled Friday that Google must comply with search warrants issued by the FBI for a domestic fraud investigation, turning over emails from Gmail users that are stored outside the US. Google said they plan to appeal the ruling.
US magistrate judge Thomas Rueter said that transferring emails from foreign servers does not qualify as seizure because there was “no meaningful interference” with the account holder’s “possessory interest” in the emails. He wrote:
“Though the retrieval of the electronic data by Google from its multiple data centres abroad has the potential for an invasion of privacy, the actual infringement of privacy occurs at the time of disclosure in the United States.”
The ruling goes against that of a federal appeals court, which gave an opposite ruling in a similar case involving Microsoft in terms of email data stored abroad. In a statement, a Google spokesperson said:
“The magistrate in this case departed from precedent, and we plan to appeal the decision. We will continue to push back on overbroad warrants.”
Just seven months earlier, the second US circuit court of appeals in New York ruled that Microsoft could be forced to turn over emails stored on a server in Ireland, of interest to US law enforcement in a narcotics case. The ruling, made on July 14th, was welcomed by technology and media companies, privacy advocates, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the American Civil Liberties Union. That appeals court ruled on January 24th not to reverse the decision, but four judges called for a reversal by the supreme court, arguing that the decision hindered law enforcement and put national security at risk.
Both of these cases involve warrants that were issued under the 1986 US Stored Communications Act, considered outdated by many tech companies and privacy advocates. The law is considered especially controversial in relation to the privacy concerns of the European Union and revised EU-US privacy shield data sharing agreement. The EU is among the largest markets for US technology companies.
Google refered to the July Microsoft ruling in its case, and said it had complied with warrants by handing over data they knew was being stored in the US. However, Google added in court documents that it sometimes stores individual emails in pieces to improve network performance, admitting it did not always know where certain emails might be stored.
According to the recent ruling, US law enforcement makes more than 25,000 requests annually for user data sought in criminal matters.