When may law enforcement agents in the United States obtain digital information stored on a server located abroad?

What Should Law Enforcement Agents Do If A Suspect’s E-Mails Are Stored Abroad?

Tech savvy criminals in the United States beware!  Your e-mails stored on servers abroad are discoverable by law enforcement agents in the United States.  A technologically clever criminal in the United States may have set up his e-mail account with a different country code to hide e-mails abroad from law enforcement agents in the United States during an investigation.  The United States District Court of the Southern District of New York did not reward the particularly tech savvy criminals when it decided In re Warrant to Search a Certain E-Mail Account Controlled and Maintained by Microsoft Corporation (“In re Warrant to Search”) on April 25, 2014.

In In re Warrant to Search, law enforcement agents in the United States obtained a warrant authorizing the search and seizure of information associated with a specific web-based e-mail account that is stored at the premises of Microsoft Corporation.  In response, Microsoft’s Global Criminal Compliance team complied with the warrant to the extent of producing the information stored on servers in the United States.  However, the servers in the United States only contained non-content information because the target e-mail account was hosted in Dublin, Ireland, where a server stored all the content information.  Thus, Microsoft filed a motion seeking to quash the warrant to the extent that it directs the production of information stored abroad.

Microsoft’s obligation to disclose customer information and records to the Government is governed by the Stored Communications Act (the “SCA”).  However, Microsoft argued that Federal courts are without authority to issue warrants for the search and seizure of property outside the territorial limits of the United States.  The Government contended that the SCA does not implicate principles of extraterritoriality, and as such, Microsoft’s motion must be dismissed.

The Court dismissed Microsoft’s motion and required it to produce the digital information from the server in Dublin.  The Court found that the SCA was ambiguous regarding principles of extraterritoriality, but the structure of the statute, the legislative history, and the practical consequences undermined Microsoft’s argument.  An SCA Warrant allows for law enforcement agents to obtain digital information even when it is stored on servers abroad.

Criminal defendants, law enforcement agents, and internet service providers can all learn a lesson from this case.  Law enforcement agents in the United States should be aware that digital information stored abroad is not necessarily beyond their grasps.  Internet service providers should provide the digital information from all its servers, irrespective of the server’s location, to ensure full compliance with SCA Warrants.  And finally, for all the tech savvy criminals out there, your e-mails will be discovered by law enforcement in the United States even if stored on a server in a different country.  If you are concerned about hiding your e-mails from law enforcement agents in the United States, I suggest that in addition to storing your e-mails on a server abroad, you should also not use an American internet service provider, such as Microsoft.

Gary Discovery received a B.S. in Business Administration, with a concentration in Finance from the Bartley School of Business at Villanova University.  He will receive his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 2015.  After graduation, Gary will clerk for a presiding civil judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey.

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