Microsoft, White House clash over email searches

WASHINGTON — On the surface, the investigation was routine.

Federal agents persuaded a judge to issue a warrant for a Microsoft email account they suspected was used for drug trafficking.

But U.S.-based Microsoft kept the emails on a server in Ireland. Microsoft said that meant the emails were beyond the warrant’s reach. A federal appeals court agreed.

Late last month, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

The case is among several legal clashes that Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft and other technology companies have had with the government over questions of digital privacy and authorities’ need for information to combat crime and extremism. Privacy law experts say the companies have been more willing to push back against the government since the leak of classified information detailing America’s surveillance programs.

Another issue highlighted in the appeal is the difficulty that judges face in trying to square decades-old laws with new technological developments.

In the latest case, a suspected drug trafficker used Microsoft’s email service. In 2013, federal investigators obtained a warrant under a 1986 law for the emails themselves as well as identifying information about the user of the email account.

Microsoft turned over the information, but went to court to defend its decision not to hand over the emails from Ireland.