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Google may have to give US government access to GMail accounts

It seems Microsoft has been somewhat more successful than Google in protecting the privacy of their overseas users.

On Friday (4th Feb 2017) U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter in Philadelphia ruled that Google needed to provide the FBI with access to emails stored overseas as part of fulfilling the demands of a search warrant for a domestic fraud case.

Google had argued that emails may be stored in USA and in part in servers round the world, and that the company should only hand over the bits residing on servers in USA.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter in Philadelphia however ruled that transferring emails from a foreign server so FBI agents could review them locally did not qualify as a seizure.

“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,” Rueter wrote.

The judge said this was because there was “no meaningful interference” with the account holder’s “possessory interest” in the data sought.

Last year Microsoft won a somewhat similar case involving email from an Irish citizen stored in Ireland, and Google was relying on a precedent this set in this case, but it likely failed due to Google trying to stretch the precedent too far.

While Google fragments email around the world for performance reasons, Microsoft place servers around the world specifically for reasons of data privacy and jurisdiction, meaning Irish emails for example are stored in Ireland and subject to Irish, not US laws.

The news is relevant particularly in this day and age where the US administration has specifically worked to strip foreigners of privacy protections in USA. If every Gmail in the world is considered to reside in USA and accessible to US investigators then it seems storing your email there is rather risky.

Google responded by saying they would appeal the decision, saying:

“The magistrate in this case departed from precedent, and we plan to appeal the decision. We will continue to push back on overbroad warrants.”


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