District judge rules that data stored outside of U.S. subject to warrants

By John Myers | Mar 14, 2017

PHILADELPHIA – Data can still be subject to search warrants issued in the United States even if it is stored in another country, according to a federal magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Thomas J. Rueter, magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered Google to follow the demands of three search warrants issued by the U.S. government requiring the company to turn over electronic data even though it was stored outside the country. In reaching his Feb. 3 decision, Rueter ruled that compelling Google to produce the data does not constitute an unlawful extraterritorial application of the Stored Communications Act (SCA).

The SCA is a federal law that establishes the nondisclosure requirements for providers of electronic communications services and remote computing services. The act includes certain exceptions such as 18 U.S.C. 2703, which states that the government may obtain access to basic subscriber and transaction information through an administrative subpoena. This allows the federal government to obtain non-content records or material that is relevant to a criminal investigation from digital service providers in this way.

In this case, the main source of contention is related to data requested from Google that was stored in systems outside of the U.S. Because the requested data was not in a system contained within U.S. borders, Google argues that data was outside of the government's jurisdiction.

For that reason, the company responded by only producing the data that was pertinent to the warrants that Google could confirm was stored in the U.S. at the time of the request.

“Normally the fact that the law enforcement agency was able to get a search warrant is an indicator that they were at very least following proper protocol,” said Dennis Giever, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the Institute for Cyber Security at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“But that also doesn't mean that Google won't have grounds to fight those requests and that it could serve as the grounds for conflict that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

The government responded to Google's evasion by filing a motion to force the company to produce the entirety of the data it had requested as per Matter of Warrant to Search a Certain E-mail Account Controlled and Maintained by Microsoft Corp. Google responded by saying that it was not required to produce data stored outside of the U.S. because the warrant does not reach beyond the country's borders.

“Typically our Constitution does not reach into other countries,” Giever said. “But the Supreme Court has ruled that it is legal for law enforcement to bring people back to the United States against their will, even if it violates the laws of the country they are being recovered from. So there is some established precedent here.”

Google's argument was rejected by Rueter, who granted the government’s motion to compel.

“Normally, the United States Government is not beholden to the laws of other countries when it enforces its own laws.” Grieves said. “But there are exceptions when it comes to companies as opposed to private individuals.”

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