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The United States needs to accord the same legal protections to user data held on tech companies' servers as it does to physical files stored in personal file cabinets, media attorneys and lawmakers said Wednesday.
The witnesses spoke at a hearing on whether the US government overuses it secret subpoena power in a way that harms American internet users. The proceeding follows revelations that former President Donald Trump's US Department of Justice secretly sought the phone records of reporters and Democratic representatives to investigate the leaks of classified material.
Word of the DOJ's investigations outraged lawmakers and prompted renewed talk of curbing the federal government's practice of secretly subpoenaing the cloud service providers — companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Alphabet's Google — to win access to their users' emails, documents and instant messages without giving them a chance to defend their interests.
US Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said the tactic was "an end run on the protections that the Fourth Amendment is supposed to provide to every American."
Hearst's chief legal officer, Eve Burton, spoke for many witnesses when she told the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee that "the same protections must apply whether the information is sought in an office file or on a cloud server across the country or across the world."
That call received a warm reception from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
Representative Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said this kind of surveillance in the United States was "in direct contravention of its most fundamental law."
The only representative of the tech industry at the hearing, Microsoft executive Tom Burt, said that in the last five years his company had received 2,400 to 3,500 secrecy orders a year and that US courts provided little by way of meaningful oversight.
"Providers, like Microsoft, regularly receive boilerplate secrecy orders unsupported by any meaningful legal or factual analysis," Burt told lawmakers. "Many of these orders should never have been approved by the courts."
Burt said that while the effort to target lawmakers and reporters disturbs many Americans, "what may be most shocking is just how routine court-mandated secrecy has become when law enforcement targets Americans' emails, text messages, and other sensitive data stored in the cloud."
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