Americans' data privacy could be at stake in case between Microsoft and US government

  • If a closely watched privacy rights fight between Microsoft and the U.S. Justice Department ends up with the latter having the upper hand, other countries could get more "aggressive" with their surveillance over the data of American citizens, a U.S law professor said.
  • On Tuesday, Supreme Court justices were divided in their opinion over whether prosecutors can force technology companies to hand over data stored overseas.
  • This case comes as tech firms increasingly store data remotely, and pits the need to safeguard customer data against the demands of law enforcement in obtaining information crucial to investigations.

If a closely watched major privacy rights fight between Microsoft and the U.S. Justice Department ends up with the latter having the upper hand, other countries could get more "aggressive" with their surveillance over the data of American citizens, a U.S law professor said.

Speaking to CNBC on "Squawk Box," Matthew Tokson, an associate professor of law at the University of Utah, said: "Most experts seem to think that the government has the upper hand here."

"One concern about this case is if the government prevails, foreign countries may be more actively aggressive with their surveillance of say, U.S. citizens' data stored in their countries," he added.

On Tuesday, Supreme Court justices were divided in their opinion over whether prosecutors can force technology companies to hand over data stored overseas. Some signaled support for the government, while others urged Congress to pass a law to resolve the issue. A ruling is due by the end of June.

Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on February 27, 2018.
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images
Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on February 27, 2018.

This case is also being closely watched by other countries wrestling with similar concerns, including members of the European Union. This case comes as tech firms increasingly store data remotely, and pits the need to safeguard customer data against the demands of law enforcement in obtaining information crucial to investigations.

It began when Microsoft took issue at handing over a criminal suspect's emails stored in Microsoft computer servers in Dublin in a drug trafficking case, with the tech giant challenging whether a domestic warrant covered data stored abroad.

But Tokson is of the opinion that the ruling, however it turns out, may not lead to "drastic changes" domestically, at least.

"In fact, one of the arguments in the government's favour in this case is that, this is already what you can do with a subpoena in most cases. If you subpoena Microsoft in the U.S., you can ask them for data or files stored overseas," he said.

— Reuters contributed to this report.