Technology

Microsoft and Others Reserve Right To Read Customers' Emails

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Microsoft has asserted its right to read customers’ emails, according to a story on CNN. Last week the company admitted in federal court documents that it had hacked its way into a journalist’s Hotmail account to stop a leak of some proprietary software. The company said it was justified in doing so because the software, had it leaked, would have empowered hackers to exploit security vulnerabilities and put other customers at risk. 

"In this case, we took extraordinary actions based on the specific circumstances," said John Frank, a Microsoft lawyer.

According to the FBI, Microsoft learned in 2012 that an ex-employee had leaked the software to an anonymous blogger. Fearing that the blogger could could sell the information, company attorneys approved “content pulls” from the blogger’s email accounts. Under such a situation law enforcement agencies would be required to obtain a warrant. Microsoft claimed, though, that its terms of service allow the company to access information in customers’ accounts “in the most exceptional circumstances.”

"Microsoft clearly believes that the users' personal data belongs to Microsoft, not the users themselves,” said Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. McCall believes users would be upset if they knew what the terms of service of most email providers actually allowed.

"This is part of the broader problem with privacy policies," she said. "There are hidden terms that the users don't actually know are there. If the terms were out in the open, people would be horrified by them.”

The problem extends beyond Microsoft according to the Guardian. Apple, Google, and Yahoo all have similar policies. A recent story quoted excerpts from each company policy.

Google, for instance, requires that users "acknowledge and agree that Google may access … your account information and any content associated with that account… in a good faith belief that such access … is reasonably necessary to … protect against imminent harm to the … property … of Google.”

The problem is that most people don’t read the terms when signing up for a new service said Charlie Howe of Skyhigh Networks.

“I would guess that most people don’t actually read the full terms and conditions before using a new application, and they would probably be surprised by what they are actually agreeing to when they click the ‘accept’ button on certain cloud services,” he said.

According to the CNN story, Microsoft, recognizing the topic is sensitive, has announced that it will bring in a former federal judge to review cases in the future where it may need to access customer information.

Sources: CNN, The Guardian

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