Microsoft Gave Data on Charlie Hebdo Probe to FBI in 45 Minutes

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Security in France
A French police officer and a soldier patrol a street in Roubaix. Security forces are on a high alert across the continent in the wake of the attacks by Islamist extremists in Paris that claimed the lives of 17 people, including nine journalists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Photographer: Philippe Huguen/AFP via Getty Images

Microsoft Corp. handed the FBI data linked to the Charlie Hebdo probe within an hour of being asked, showing that the system can work and that extra snooping should only happen if strictly regulated, the company’s top lawyer said.

“Just two weeks ago, the French Government sought the content of e-mails from two customer accounts held by Microsoft when it was in the midst of pursuing the Charlie Hebdo suspects,” Brad Smith, the company’s general counsel, said in a speech in Brussels today. Microsoft was able to conclude the request from the Federal Bureau of Investigation “was proper, pull the e-mail content in question, and deliver it to the FBI in New York, all in 45 minutes.”

Security forces are on a high alert across the continent in the wake of the attacks by Islamist extremists in Paris that claimed the lives of 17 people, including nine journalists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. European governments this week pledged to embed security officials in European Union delegations across the Arab world and work on counter-terrorism projects with countries including Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and the Gulf states.

Laws need to be “modernized” to allow the rule of law, including the Internet, to work across national borders, said Smith.

‘Shift the Line’

EU data privacy watchdogs last week issued a warning that spying programs being considered may harm individual liberties and that new rules are needed that strike the right balance between privacy and security.

“If those in government want to shift the line between safety and privacy, the appropriate path is to do so by changing the law rather than asking those of us in the private sector to shift this balance by ourselves,” said Smith.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that security services need additional powers to ensure terrorists can’t use the Internet to communicate secretly with each other. That may mean reviving plans to let agencies record the web-browsing history and social-media interactions of citizens.

Robert Hannigan, the director of the U.K.’s spy listening post, said last year that Internet firms such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. are “in denial” about their role in spreading terrorism and called on U.S. technology companies to lend their support in the fight.

Standstill

While “events and issues that touch safety, privacy, and the Internet have been moving forward at an accelerating pace” over the last 24 months, “for the most part the law has stood still,” Smith said. “Democratic societies, not private companies, need to decide on the balances to be struck between public values such as public safety and personal privacy.”

“Personal information and data should not be accessed or seized without proper legal process,” said Smith.

John Sawers, the former head of the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, today joined the debate on how far government snooping should go, calling on intelligence agencies and technology companies to agree on sharing data.

“There is a dilemma because the public, politicians and technology companies, to some extent, want us to be able to monitor the activities of the terrorists and evil-doers but don’t want their electronic activities to be open to such monitoring,” Sawers said in a London speech.

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