Microsoft’s Top Lawyer Calls Supreme Court Cellphone-Warrant Case “Seminal”

It’s been a busy week in the realm of policy and technology, with the Supreme court weighing in on a several issues impacting the industry, and the government releasing something akin to a transparency report regarding a portion of the NSA’s surveillance practices.

The unanimous Supreme Court decision on Riley v. California caused a stir because it set new precedent regarding digital privacy: To search a cell phone, the court ruled, the government must procure a warrant. The decision will set the tone for future legal action regarding technology, data, user privacy, and Fourth Amendment protections.

I’d like to highlight some commentary on the decision from a perhaps unlikely source, Microsoft.

Microsoft, in the past week, has become a leading voice for user privacy and a less active surveillance state. The company’s de facto spokesperson on the matter, its top lawyer Brad Smith, recently gave a lecture in which he called for the end of bulk surveillance, warrant reform, and more transparency in the FISA court. He also called on the Senate to strengthen the somewhat gutted USA FREEDOM Act that recently passed the House.

When Smith speaks, under his official title, he’s speaking for slightly more than himself.

Capping the week with a blog post this weekend, Smith called the Riley decision “seminal.” Continuing, the lawyer wrote that the decision will have “positive implications both for smart devices and the storage of personal information in the cloud.” Correct.

Microsoft and a number of other technology companies have banded together under the auspices of a group called Reform Government Surveillance. Constituent companies have spoken out, of course. Google most recently blogged a response to the NSA’s transparency report, for example. Smith, viz Microsoft, has been the most outspoken.

It’s pleasant when corporate interests align with user interests. In the case of pervasive surveillance, the profit motive is lashed to privacy: Corporations and individuals alike won’t flock to the cloud as quickly as they might if their stored data is open to wanton exploit. Recall that Smith directly name-checked the cloud. That wasn’t an accident.

It would be nice to see other technology companies being more publicly articulate on the issue. For now, though, it’s been a generally positive week for those who view NSA reform as vital, and privacy paramount.

There’s still more to do.