Microsoft Lawsuit Shows Privacy’s a Myth

Microsoft’s recent lawsuit against a former employee accused of leaking trade secrets teaches us an important lesson: Your data is not your data.

The Redmond-based software giant admitted in court documents to accessing the Hotmail and messaging accounts of a French blogger in order to determine who was sending him prerelease screenshots of Windows programs and other proprietary corporate information. Federal prosecutors have charged the sender, a former senior software architect who worked for Microsoft in Lebanon and Russia, with theft of trade secrets.

Microsoft’s power play should be a wake-up call to journalists and bloggers — particularly technology journalists like yours truly. Let’s just say I’ll think twice about the next time I want to use my Gmail account to report on an article about Google.

Experts say it was perfectly legal for Microsoft to access — without a court order — a user account on the email and messaging services it owns. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act permits companies to access its users’ accounts under a broad array of circumstances.

While U.S. technology giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft have taken pains to distance themselves from government spy efforts brought to light by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, this recent lawsuit is a reminder of the power these companies have to infringe on our privacy in the very same way.

To its credit, even Microsoft seems to realize it shouldn’t have been able to do what it did. A top lawyer for the company promised that from now on, it will only search user accounts if it can satisfy the same criteria that would be required by a court order. John Frank, the company’s vice president and deputy general counsel, released a statement saying that in the future, if it wants to access its user accounts to investigate a suspected crime against Microsoft, it will submit the evidence to an outside legal expert who will determine whether a search is just.

“The privacy of our customers is incredibly important to us,” Frank’s statement reads. “And while we believe our actions in this particular case were appropriate given the specific circumstances, we want to be clear about how we will handle similar situations going forward.”

Even with these policy changes, users of Internet services should remember that tech giants that hold the key to our personal communication vaults operate on the honor system. The fact is that courts aren’t going to start issuing orders for companies to search themselves.

Your Hotmail and Outlook accounts belong to Microsoft. Your Facebook messages belong to Facebook, and your Gmail exchanges to Google. We’re all so focused on government spying that it’s easy to forget the data they’re sifting through isn’t really ours to begin with.

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