Stored Communications Act

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 16, 2017, announced it had granted the government’s petition for certiorari in United States v. Microsoft and will hear a case this Term that could have lasting implications for how technology companies interact with the U.S government and governments overseas. At issue is a consequential Second Circuit decision from last year that held that warrants issued under the Stored Communications Act (SCA) do not reach emails and other user data stored overseas by a U.S. provider.

While no federal appellate court besides the Second Circuit has squarely addressed the issue, multiple district courts outside the Second Circuit have declined to follow the Second Circuit’s reasoning in similar fact patterns involving other technology giants. The result is that U.S. law enforcement has different authority to access foreign-stored user data depending on where in the United States a warrant application is made. Google, for example, has expended significant resources to develop new tools to determine the geographic location of its users’ data so as to be in accord with the Second Circuit’s approach. Yet the company currently faces a hearing on sanctions for its alleged willful noncompliance with law enforcement requests in the Ninth Circuit based on a district court ruling that parted ways with the Second Circuit.


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2015 11 30 DJV NAT 218Facebook’s four-year battle on behalf of its users, seeking to quash 381 warrants obtained by the New York County District Attorney’s Office, has come to a close. The decision of the New York Court of Appeals—which is New York’s highest court—leaves Facebook users exposed to wide-ranging and largely unchecked inquiries by New York criminal prosecutors

GettyImages-520390753-600pxThe U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently secured a notable victory against Google in a dispute over the enforceability of a U.S. search warrant seeking access to foreign-stored account data.

The April 19 ruling—from Magistrate Judge Beeler in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California—is the latest sign that DOJ is continuing to rely on the Stored Communication Act (SCA) to seek overseas account data even after the Department’s high profile defeat in the Second Circuit’s ruling in the Microsoft case.

And the opinion suggests that DOJ’s litigation strategy may be working.

The dispute arose after DOJ obtained a search warrant last year under the SCA directing Google to provide information related to specified Google user accounts. Google withheld some of the requested information and challenged the request. Google explained that it relies on algorithms to move user data around the world automatically to aid in network efficiency. Invoking the Second Circuit’s Microsoft ruling, which rejected DOJ’s efforts to obtain content stored on Microsoft servers in Ireland, Google argued that some of the requested data was stored exclusively overseas and therefore beyond the purview of an SCA warrant.
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Gradient and transparent effect used.

In a major development for cloud and other data storage providers, and further complicating the legal landscape for the cross-border handling of data, a Federal Magistrate Judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled for the Department of Justice and ordered Google, Inc., to comply with two search warrants for foreign-stored user data. The order was issued on February 3, 2017 pursuant to the Stored Communications Act, (SCA), and the reasoning of the Court rested heavily on the court’s statutory analysis of the SCA. The ruling is a marked departure from a recent, high-profile Second Circuit decision holding that Microsoft could refuse to comply with a similar court order for user data stored overseas.

The SCA regulates how service providers like Google and Microsoft who store user data can disclose user information. The Magistrate Judge issued two warrants under the SCA for emails sent from Google users in the United States to recipients in the United States. Google refused to fully comply, invoking Microsoft, and the Government moved to compel. In its briefing, Google argued that the SCA can only reach data stored in the United States and that, because Google constantly shuffles “shards” of incomplete user data between its servers across the world, Google could never know for certain what information is stored domestically and what is stored overseas. Therefore, Google argued, the data sought under the warrants was beyond the reach of the SCA.
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Abstract futuristic blurred background with envelope symbols (fast mail and modern communication concept)

As a result of the Second Circuit’s recent opinion in Microsoft v. United States, the U.S. government likely can no longer use warrants issued pursuant to the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) to compel U.S.-based companies to produce communications, such as emails, that are stored in a physical location outside of the United States—at least for now. Instead, the government will likely need to rely on Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties, which provide a framework for states to, among other things, provide assistance to one another to obtain and execute search warrants in their respective jurisdictions.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the U.S. government will seek an alternative, which could include appealing the case to the Second Circuit en banc or pursuing legislation in Congress to amend and update the SCA in light of new digital realities.

Background on the SCA and the Microsoft Dispute

The SCA, which limits service providers’ disclosure of the user data they store, provides that a service provider may disclose to the government certain information, such as the stored contents of a customer’s emails, only if the government first obtains a warrant requiring the disclosure. Microsoft v. United States arose out of Microsoft’s dispute over the scope of one such warrant, which sought information about an email account that Microsoft determined was hosted in Dublin.

Microsoft moved to quash the warrant with respect to the actual emails in the account on the grounds that the SCA does not authorize a search and seizure outside of the territory of the United States, which is where the emails were stored.


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