Apple has joined Amazon and Microsoft in a court filing which supports Google’s decision to resist an FBI warrant demanding that it hand over emails stored outside the USA. The tech companies argue that this would set a ‘troubling’ precedent.

Business Insider reports that the FBI served search warrants ordering Google to hand over emails belonging to suspects in a criminal investigation. The emails in question were stored on a server stored outside the USA, and Google refused, arguing that a domestic search warrant could not apply to data stored in a foreign country …

A Pennsylvania court disagreed, instructing Google to comply with the warrant. Google appealed the ruling, and Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have now filed a joint amicus brief in support of the search giant. (An amicus brief is a submission by parties not directly involved in a case but which to express a view for the court to consider.)

The filing does not suggest that the government is necessarily wrong to seek to extend the law to data stored overseas, but rather argues that the current law does not permit this, and it is for Congress – and not the courts – to make this call.

This case addresses the reach of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et seq., which Congress enacted as part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. Technology has changed dramatically since the SCA became law. The Congress that drafted the SCA could barely have imagined the notion of storing emails halfway across the globe. That is why companies, commentators, and privacy advocates alike have long called for the SCA to be updated in light of the realities of 21st century technology. The question here, however, is the scope of the SCA as it now stands, not as Congress might eventually revise it.

The tech companies do, however, argue that Congress should consider carefully the implications of applying U.S. search warrants to data held in other countries.

Equally troubling, it invites foreign nations to reciprocate by likewise demanding that local offices of U.S. technology companies turn over U.S. citizens’ private communications stored on U.S. soil. It also places technology companies that store customer data abroad in the untenable position of being compelled to risk violating foreign data privacy laws to comply with warrants issued by U.S. courts.

In other words, it would be a dangerous precedent to signal that any country can behave in the way the U.S. is attempting to behave here.

Apple of course resisted the FBI itself in the San Bernardino shooting case, refusing to create a weakened version of iOS that would allow access to an iPhone – and Google filed an amicus brief supporting Apple in that case.

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Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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