WASHINGTON – Federal law enforcement agencies in the United States secretly request data from Microsoft users thousands of times a year, according to testimony from a top company executive before Congress.
Microsoft’s vice president for security and customer trust, Tom Burt, told members of the House Committee on Legal Affairs that federal agencies in recent years have been submitting the company between 2,400 and 3,500 secret orders per year; between seven and 10 per day.
“The most shocking thing is how routine these secret orders have become when law enforcement agencies target Americans’ emails, text messages and other data stored in the cloud,” said Burt, describing the vast clandestine espionage as a major change in historical norms.
The relationship between law enforcement agencies and the tech giants has drawn new attention in recent weeks with revelations that Donald Trump-era Justice Department prosecutors obtained, as part of news leak investigations, phone records not just of journalists, but also of congressmen and their assistants.
Microsoft, for example, was among the companies that released data under a court order and that, due to a gag order, had to wait more than two years before disclosing it.
Since then, Microsoft chairman Brad Smith has called for an end to the overuse of secret orders, arguing in an op-ed in the Washington Post that “prosecutors are exploiting too much technology to abuse our fundamental freedoms.” Attorney General Merrick Garland has said his department will abandon the practice of confiscating journalists’ documents and will formalize that decision soon.
Burt is one of the witnesses at a legal panel hearing on potential legislative solutions to intrusive investigations into media leaks.
Burt said that while the revelation that federal prosecutors had requested data from journalists and political figures was surprising to many Americans, the scale of the espionage is far greater.
He criticized prosecutors for instinctively seeking secrecy through hackneyed requests that “allow law enforcement agencies to simply assert a conclusion that a secrecy order is necessary.”