Microsoft has today performed a second volte-face in the Hotmail scanning scandal, and this time it looks serious.
There was uproar after the software giant revealed it had rummaged through a blogger’s Hotmail inbox to snare an employee who had allegedly leaked pre-release Windows 8 software.
Microsoft runs Hotmail as part of its online Windows Live collective, and poking around a user’s inbox was perfectly legal under the service’s terms and conditions. But its customers were rather annoyed that the company’s sleuths were allowed to nose through people’s private messages and hand over the data to the feds.
“By going into Hotmail without a warrant and turning over some of the contents to the police they really challenged their users’ expectations about what level of privacy they were going to get out of Microsoft,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior staff attorney Kurt Opsahl told The Register this afternoon, US West Coast time.
“Even though many other services have claims to reserve the right to look though materials in various circumstances there’s a difference between abstractly claiming the right and actually doing it.”
Microsoft announced a change of policy shortly after the news broke at the end of week, saying that a separate team will consider the legal implications of searching someone’s email account, and that the search would only proceed if there was enough evidence of wrongdoing to justify a court order.
Today Microsoft’s general counsel Brad Smith has announced Microsoft has changed its policy again. From now on, Redmond staff won’t probe the email inboxes of its customers, but will outsource the job to law enforcement. In addition Microsoft is taking another look at its TCs.
“We’ve entered a ‘post-Snowden era’ in which people rightly focus on the ways others use their personal information,” he wrote. “As a company we’ve participated actively in the public discussions about the proper balance between the privacy rights of citizens and the powers of government. We’ve advocated that governments should rely on formal legal processes and the rule of law for surveillance activities.”
Microsoft approached the EFF and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) to conduct a thorough review of the terms and conditions of its cloud services. Both organizations have solid credentials on privacy, and said they were happy to help.
Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at CDT, gave Microsoft credit for trying to sort out the issue, saying Redmond had come to them to get feedback on how to make its practices more privacy-aware, and said that other companies are welcome to take part in the review as well.
“Companies are beside themselves on this issue nowadays, after the NSA leaks,” he told The Register. “No one has really been thinking about this for too long we started using cloud email in the 1990s but companies now recognize this is a market issue for them.” ®