New Legislation Increases Government Access to Online Data

Congress quietly passed controversial legislation last week that was folded into the massive $1.3 trillion spending deal signed by President Trump. The CLOUD Act (Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act) enables U.S. investigators to access information stored on overseas cloud servers. New legislation could bring an end to the ongoing battle between law enforcement and major tech players. However, a number of civil liberty and privacy rights groups believe the law could also make it easier for other governments to spy on dissidents and collect data on U.S. citizens.

“In a letter to Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch and other civil liberties groups said the CLOUD Act allows foreign governments to wiretap on American soil, using standards that don’t comply with U.S. law, and gives the executive branch the power to enter into agreements with other nations without congressional approval,” reports USA Today.

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The law “updates the rules for criminal investigators who want to see emails, documents and other communications stored on the Internet,” explains CNET. “Now law enforcement won’t be blocked from accessing someone’s Outlook account, for example, just because Microsoft happens to store the user’s email on servers in Ireland.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, the measure “would amend U.S. law to make clear that law-enforcement warrants can apply to data that U.S.-based tech companies store anywhere in the world. But the act also would give companies a right to challenge warrants in court based on privacy laws in the specific country where the data are stored. It also would allow for bilateral agreements between the U.S. and other countries over how to deal with disputes in the future.”

Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith described the bill as “a strong statute and a good compromise,” suggesting that “it gives tech companies like Microsoft the ability to stand up for the privacy rights of our customers around the world.”

“The Internet industry applauds Congress for including the CLOUD Act in the omnibus spending bill,” said Melika Carroll, a senior VP for the Internet Association. “It’s critical that we modernize U.S. privacy laws to reflect current realities of how data is stored around the world. Passing the CLOUD Act will enable law enforcement to gather data stored abroad for the purposes of investigating serious crimes, while still protecting individual privacy rights.”

However, critics believe the bill enables law enforcement to “bypass constitutional protections against unreasonable searches,” notes CNET, and could lead to user data being shared with “police in countries known for abusing the human rights of their citizens.”