limited view through a wall
Google will appeal a ruling ordering it to turn over data to the FBI PHOTO: Morgana Bartolomei

US Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter on Friday ordered Google to hand over emails stored outside of the US to the FBI.

The emails were subject of two search warrants issued by the FBI in August 2016 as part of a domestic fraud investigation.

Google will appeal the ruling.

Google Privacy Rulings

In the ruling, Rueter explained the warrants requested emails sent and received by two residents of the US. 

Google, the ruling adds, had partially complied with the warrant by “by producing data that is within the scope of the warrants that it could confirm is stored on its servers located in the United States.”

The warrant continues:

“Google, however, has refused to produce other data required to be produced by the warrants, relying upon a recent decision of a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Matter of Warrant to Search a Certain E-Mail Account Controlled & Maintained by Microsoft Corp.”

He concluded, “Though the retrieval of the electronic data by Google from its multiple data centers abroad has the potential for an invasion of privacy, the actual infringement of privacy occurs at the time of disclosure in the United States.”

Hearkening Back to the Case Against Microsoft

The order goes against a previous ruling in a case against Microsoft which found in favor of the company. In that case, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York decided US investigators could not force Microsoft to hand over emails stored on a server in Dublin.

Google is using that finding as the basis of its appeal. In a statement issued over the weekend, a Google spokesman 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.”

The Microsoft decision last July was welcomed at the time by both the tech industry and civil liberties organizations.

On Jan. 24, the same appeals court decided by a 4-4 vote not to revisit its landmark decision. However, four dissenting judges called on the US Supreme Court or Congress to reverse it, saying the decision hurt law enforcement and raised national security concerns.

So even if Google manages to have Friday’s ruling overturned, the Supreme Court may be forced to enter the fray. 

Both cases involved warrants issued under the US Stored Communications Act, a 1986 federal law which many tech companies consider outdated. The law could have broader impacts on deals such as the EU-US privacy shield data sharing agreement which came into force Aug. 1, 2016.

Not Exactly Paragons of Privacy

No one will mistake Google, or any of the big tech companies, crusaders for online privacy. Google itself admitted in 2013 that it machine scans Gmail for the purposes of personalized advertising. 

However, tech companies have consistently defied authority requests for personal information. David Drummond, Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at Google explained in a recent blog post:

“It’s important for law enforcement agencies to pursue illegal activity and keep the public safe. We’re a law-abiding company, and we don’t want our services to be used in harmful ways. But it’s just as important that laws protect you against overly broad requests for your personal information.” he wrote.