More tech giants take on US government

Monday, 22 Feb 2016 | 11:33 AM ETCNBC.com

Apple isn’t alone.

The tech giant is dominating the headlines in a standoff over whether to help the FBI access the locked, encrypted iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

But this case is just one example of the broader tension that has erupted between tech companies and the Justice Department across a range of national security and criminal issues.

For example, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella is fighting the DOJ in a drug-trafficking case. The government is trying to force Microsoft to turn over emails stored in data centers in Ireland as part of the investigation.

Microsoft contends that emails stored in the cloud belong to the customer, with the same privacy protection as paper letters sent by mail. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s chief legal officer, has also argued that the U.S. government must have a warrant, but a search warrant cannot reach beyond U.S. shores.

In other words, according to Microsoft, the DOJ is exceeding its authority. The company told CNBC it is willing to take the battle to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Apple CEO Tim Cook (L), Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella (C) and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsy (R). Apple CEO Tim Cook (L), Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella (C) and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsy (R).

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is also going head-to-head with the department. The company says it is being prohibited from reporting on the scope of surveillance of Twitter users by the U.S. government. Twitter argues that it entitled to do so under the First Amendment, and seeks to publish a full and complete report on transparency.

The government counters that Twitter can’t publish that report because it contains classified information, and it wants the case dismissed. Twitter told CNBC that the government’s motion will be heard in court next month.

One reason for these growing tensions is Edward Snowden, said Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy, a tech research firm.

Snowden’s revelations about the NSA generated increased public scrutiny about the relationships between Silicon Valley and U.S. intelligence agencies. Now tech companies are forced to dig in their heels and take on the government in court so their users can be assured that big tech is protecting their data, Moorhead said.

“These tech companies do believe in privacy,” Moorhead said. “But compromising [with the government] also becomes more challenging when the fight is public.”

In contrast, the government argues that it needs these data to protect those very same users. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

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