U.S. to Allow Foreigners to Serve Warrants on U.S. Internet Firms

Devlin Barrett and Jay Greene
Updated July 15, 2016 8:00 p.m. ET

The Obama administration is working on a series of agreements with foreign 
governments that would allow them for the first time to serve U.S. technology 
companies with warrants for email searches and wiretaps—a move that is already 
stirring debates over privacy, security, crime and terrorism.

Brad Wiegmann, a senior official at the Justice Department, discussed the 
administration’s efforts during a public forum on Friday at a congressional 
office building in Washington, D.C. The first such agreement is being assembled 
with the U.K., he said.

Word of the plans came one day after a federal appeals court ruled that federal 
warrants couldn’t be used to search data held overseas by Microsoft Corp. MSFT 
-0.07 % , dealing the agency a major legal defeat.

The court’s decision in favor of Microsoft could prove to be a major barrier to 
the Obama administration’s proposed new rules to share data with other nations 
in criminal and terrorism probes, which would be sharply at odds with the 
ruling. It might lead some companies to reconfigure their networks to route 
customer data away from the U.S., putting it out of the reach of federal 
investigators if the administration’s plan fails.

The Justice Department has indicated it is considering appealing the Microsoft 
ruling to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Justice Department officials are pressing ahead with their own plan 
for cross-border data searches.

Under the proposed agreements described by Mr. Wiegmann, foreign investigators 
would be able to serve a warrant directly on a U.S. firm to see a suspect’s 
stored emails or intercept their messages in real time, as long as the 
surveillance didn’t involve U.S. citizens or residents.

Such deals would also give U.S. investigators reciprocal authority to search 
data in other countries.

“They wouldn’t be going to the U.S. government, they’d be going directly to the 
providers,’’ said Mr. Wiegmann. Any such arrangement would require that 
Congress pass new legislation, and lawmakers have been slow to update 
electronic privacy laws.

That U.K. agreement, which must be approved by the legislatures of both 
countries, could become a template for similar deals with other countries, U.S. 
officials said.

Mr. Wiegmann said the U.S. would strike such deals only with nations that have 
clear civil liberties protections to ensure that the search orders aren’t 

“These agreements will not be for everyone. There will be countries that don’t 
meet the standards,’’ he said.

Greg Nojeim, a privacy advocate at the Center for Democracy and Technology, 
criticized the plan. He said it would be “swapping out the U.S. law for foreign 
law’’ and argued that U.K. search warrants have less stringent judicial 
protections than U.S. law.

British diplomat Kevin Adams disputed that, saying the proposal calls for 
careful judicial scrutiny of such warrants. Privacy concerns over creating new 
legal authorities are overblown, he added.

“What is really unprecedented is that law enforcement is not able to access the 
data they need,’’ Mr. Adams said. The ability to monitor a suspect’s 
communications in real time “is really an absolutely vital tool to protect the 

While Thursday’s court decision represented a victory for Microsoft, which 
strives to keep data physically near its customers, it may not be viewed as a 
positive development for all internet companies, said University of Kentucky 
law professor Andrew Woods. Yahoo Inc., YHOO -0.63 % Facebook Inc. FB -0.37 % 
and Alphabet Inc. GOOGL -0.02 % ’s Google operate more centralized systems. 
They didn’t file briefs in support of Microsoft’s position in the case, he 

Mr. Woods warned that increased localization of data could have the unintended 
consequence of encouraging governments to become more intrusive.

“If you erect barriers needlessly to states getting data in which they have a 
legitimate interest, you make this problem worse,’’ he said. “You increase the 
pressure that states feel to introduce backdoors into encryption.”

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said the company shares 
concerns about the “unintended consequences” of excessive data localization 

“But rather than worry about the problem, we should simply solve it” through 
legislation, Mr. Smith said. Microsoft supports the proposed International 
Communications Privacy Act. That legislation would, among other provisions, 
create a framework for law enforcement to obtain data from U.S. citizens, 
regardless of where the person or data was located.

Companies and governments generally agree that the current legal framework for 
cross-border data searches is far too slow and cumbersome. Though major tech 
firms don’t always agree on the particular changes they would like to see, the 
industry has long sought to get clearer rules from the U.S. and other 
governments about what their legal obligations are.

A coalition of the country’s largest tech companies, including Microsoft, 
Facebook and Google, created a group called Reform Government Surveillance that 
is pushing for updating data-protection laws. The group has said it was 
“encouraged by discussions between the U.S. and the U.K.”

Thursday’s ruling could lead some Microsoft rivals that offer email, document 
storage, and other data storage services, but which haven’t designed systems to 
store data locally, to alter their networks, said Michael Overly, a technology 
lawyer at Foley & Lardner in Los Angeles.

Google, for example, stores user data across data centers around the world, 
with attention on efficiency and security rather than where the data is 
physically stored. A given email message, for instance, may be stored in 
several data centers far from the user’s location, and an attachment to the 
message could be stored in several other data centers. The locations of the 
message, the attachment and copies of the files may change from day to day.

“[Internet companies] themselves can’t tell where the data is minute from 
minute because it’s moving dynamically,” Mr. Overly said.

The ruling could encourage tech companies to redesign their systems so that the 
data, as it courses through networks, never hits America servers.

A person familiar with Google’s networks said that such a move wouldn’t be easy 
for the company.

—Jack Nicas contributed to this article.

Write to Devlin Barrett at and Jay Greene at

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