New York: Internet service providers must turn over customer emails and other digital content sought by US government search warrants even when the information is stored overseas, a federal judge has ruled.
In what appears to be the first court decision addressing the issue, Judge James Francis in New York said internet service providers such as Microsoft or Google cannot refuse to turn over customer information and emails stored in other countries when issued a valid search warrant from US law enforcement agencies.
If US agencies were required to co-ordinate efforts with foreign governments to secure such information, the judge said, "the burden on the government would be substantial, and law enforcement efforts would be seriously impeded''.
The ruling underscores the debate over privacy and technology that has intensified since the disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about secret US government efforts to collect huge amounts of consumer data around the world.
The decision addressed a search warrant served on Microsoft for one of its customers whose emails are stored on a server in Dublin, Ireland.
In a statement, Microsoft said it challenged the warrant because the US government should not be able to search the content of email held overseas.
"A US prosecutor cannot obtain a US warrant to search someone's home located in another country, just as another country's prosecutor cannot obtain a court order in her home country to conduct a search in the United States," the company said. "We think the same rules should apply in the online world, but the government disagrees."
The company plans to seek review of Friday's decision from a federal district judge.
The search warrant in question was approved by Justice Francis in December and sought information associated with an email account for a Microsoft customer, including the customer's name, contents of all emails received and sent by the account, online session times and durations and any credit card number or bank account used for payment.
It is unclear which agency issued the warrant, and it and all related documents remain under seal.
Microsoft determined that the target account was hosted on a server in Dublin and asked the judge to throw out the request, citing US law that search warrants do not extend overseas.
Justice Francis agreed that this was true for "traditional" search warrants but not warrants seeking digital content, which are governed by a federal law called the Stored Communications Act.