Microsoft reviews investigation policies after admitting search of customer email

But the company says its actions in trade secrets inquiry were compliant with applicable law

Microsoft promised to subject itself to a more rigorous process before searching through its customers' email accounts in the future after a recent legal case revealed that the company searched for evidence of theft of its trade secrets in a Hotmail account.

A former Microsoft employee named Alex Kibkalo was arrested Wednesday on charges related to alleged leaking of prerelease Windows RT updates and product activation software to a French blogger in July and August 2012.

Court filings revealed that Microsoft's internal investigation involved searching through the French blogger's Hotmail account where it found emails from Kibkalo. Hotmail has since been rebranded as Outlook.com.

"After confirmation that the data was Microsoft's proprietary trade secret, on September 7, 2012, Microsoft's Office of Legal Compliance (OLC) approved content pull of the blogger's Hotmail account," FBI Special Agent Armando Ramirez wrote in a criminal complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Microsoft also searched through Kibkalo's instant messaging conversations and his account with SkyDrive, the company's cloud file hosting service that's now called OneDrive.

While it appears that the terms of service for Microsoft's online services allows the company to access users' content "to protect the rights and property of Microsoft," among other things, the incident drew criticism from privacy advocates and other users on social media.

"I can't wait for Microsoft's next Scroogled ad, slamming Google for violating the privacy of Gmail users," Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, said on Twitter following the revelations. "Microsoft likes to brag that they have more 'trained privacy professionals' than any other company. What were they doing during HotmailGate?" he said in a separate message.

John Frank, Microsoft's deputy general counsel and vice president for legal and corporate affairs, defended the company's actions Thursday in a blog post, saying the company took "extraordinary actions based on the specific circumstances" and it "applied a rigorous process" before reviewing the content.

"Courts do not, however, issue orders authorizing someone to search themselves," Frank said. "So even when we believe we have probable cause, there's not an applicable court process for an investigation such as this one relating to the information stored on servers located on our own premises."

Microsoft had a dedicated legal team working separately from the internal investigation to review the evidence and meet "a standard comparable to that required to obtain a legal order to search other sites," Frank said, adding that the company's actions were within its policies and applicable law.

While Microsoft hasn't announced any plans to modify its terms of service to disallow this type of internal customer data searches in the future, the company does plan to make some changes to the process that governs this type of investigations.

"We will not conduct a search of customer email and other services unless the circumstances would justify a court order, if one were available," Frank said.

In addition to using separate teams for legal review and internal investigations, the company plans to send the evidence that it believes would otherwise justify a court order to an outside attorney who used to be a judge.

"We will conduct such a search only if this former judge similarly concludes that there is evidence sufficient for a court order," Frank said.

The company also plans to start including data about the number of internal searches and the number of accounts they affected in its bi-annual transparency reports that currently include data on searches conducted in response to government and court orders.

Despite the promise of external oversight in the form of approval from a former judge, some privacy advocates don't think such searches are appropriate to begin with.

"We believe that this behavior is in fundamental contradiction with the principles of the Global Network Initiative, of which Microsoft is a leading member," said Joe McNamee, executive director of European Digital Rights (EDRi), in email. EDRi is a pan-European association of digital rights organizations.

"How can they say that it is appropriate for a private company to grant itself arbitrary access to private communications and support the GNI principle that 'Everyone should be free from illegal or arbitrary interference with the right to privacy and should have the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks?" McNamee asked.

The Global Network Initiative is a multistakeholder group founded in 2008 whose stated mission is to advance privacy and freedom of expression online. Its members include human rights and press freedom groups, academics, investors, online services providers -- including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo -- and other technology vendors.

Join the CMO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Supporting Association

Blog Posts

Why customer experience driven growth is set to take off

Our overall brand perceptions are invariably shaped by our experiences. And loyal customer relationships can be severed in moments by a negative service interaction.

Consistency and conversation: How branding and advertising can work better together

Advertising and branding are two of the most visible outputs of marketing, which is why getting them right is so important. However, too often the line between branding and advertising becomes blurred. This means advertising activity can be out of sync with brand, resulting in poor results for both functions.

Dan Ratner

managing director, uberbrand

Putting your brand on the Love Index

How much do your customers love your brand, product or service?And more importantly, why?

Bronwyn van der Merwe

Managing director, Accenture Interactive

Someone needs a swift kick up the bum for such an idiotic idea.

random

​Why a degree is no longer enough to get you hired as a skilled marketer

Read more

The frequent flyer programs are the new profit machines for airlines all over the world, as they have morphed to be mass marketing machin...

Steve@iFLYflat

Velocity frequent flyers program strong performer in mixed half-year for Virgin

Read more

Hi Jennifer, thanks for sharing these info regarding the digital marketing trends.I've created a related video to this topic, would you m...

Fabio Carry

Predictions: 17 digital marketing trends for 2017

Read more

Great news. Marketing automation can be very useful for companies at various stages of development. With so many tools out there it's bet...

Ben

How HBF rolled out marketing automation in eight months

Read more

I read a report that the business sector in Australia as a whole have yet to fully harness and see the proactive change that predictive a...

Alex Martin

Report: Predictive analytics, IoT, machine learning battle it out for marketing dollars

Read more

Latest Podcast

More podcasts

Sign in