Microsoft Promises to Stop Reading Your Emails

The company backtracks after spying on a blogger.

The 'Microsoft' logo is seen on a tablet screen on December 4, 2012 in Paris. AFP PHOTO / LIONEL BONAVENTURE (Photo credit should read)
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
March 28, 2014, 1:16 p.m.

Mi­crosoft is in full dam­age-con­trol mode after it sparked a pub­lic back­lash by snoop­ing on the emails of a blog­ger.

The com­pany said Fri­day that it will no longer go through the emails of users who are sus­pec­ted of steal­ing phys­ic­al or in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty from Mi­crosoft. In­stead, the com­pany will refer the cases to law en­force­ment.

Mi­crosoft is mak­ing the change to its com­pany policy im­me­di­ately and plans to up­date its cus­tom­er terms of ser­vice.

Last week, Mi­crosoft re­vealed in court fil­ings that its in­vest­ig­at­ors had ac­cessed the private Hot­mail ac­count of an un­named French blog­ger who al­legedly re­ceived stolen Win­dows code from a Mi­crosoft em­ploy­ee. The blog­ger was not ac­cused of any wrong­do­ing, but the FBI used the evid­ence Mi­crosoft pulled from the blog­ger’s email ac­count to bring charges against the em­ploy­ee who al­legedly leaked the in­form­a­tion.

Pri­vacy act­iv­ists were out­raged that Mi­crosoft had not gone through any form­al leg­al pro­cess be­fore read­ing a user’s emails. The con­tro­versy was es­pe­cially dam­aging be­cause Mi­crosoft has tried to at­tract new users by boast­ing about its pri­vacy pro­tec­tions. The com­pany has aired ads claim­ing Google “scroogles” its users by in­vad­ing their pri­vacy.

“It’s al­ways un­com­fort­able to listen to cri­ti­cism,” Brad Smith, Mi­crosoft’s gen­er­al coun­sel, wrote in a blog post. “But if one can step back a bit, it’s of­ten thought-pro­vok­ing and even help­ful. That was def­in­itely the case for us over the past week.”

He in­sisted that the com­pany was “clearly” with­in its leg­al rights to search the user’s email ac­count, but he said the com­pany has real­ized it should rely on form­al leg­al pro­ced­ures even when users are sus­pec­ted of steal­ing from Mi­crosoft.

Justin Brook­man, the dir­ect­or of con­sumer pri­vacy at the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy, called the change in policy a “really good step.” But he noted the an­nounce­ment is lim­ited to the nar­row cir­cum­stances when Mi­crosoft sus­pects a user of traf­fick­ing in Mi­crosoft prop­erty.

Most com­pan­ies write pri­vacy policies that give them sweep­ing au­thor­ity to ac­cess user data, Brook­man ex­plained.

“People don’t read those things very closely so there isn’t a lot of cost in say­ing, ‘We re­serve the right to go in whenev­er we want,’ ” he said. “Maybe this will get people in gen­er­al to be a little more cau­tious.”

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