Ireland has expressed serious concern about a US court order for Microsoft to hand over emails held on servers on Irish soil to US prosecutors.
This followed court action taken by American drug trafficking prosecutors to compel the technology giant to hand over details of an email account held on its Dublin servers, with the Irish government saying the move would create significant legal uncertainty about data protection in Europe.
Ireland is home to the European headquarter of several large US technology companies and is a major host of data servers, and it’s minister for data protection Dara Murphy said compliance with such warrants would put companies in breach of the Irish Data Protection Acts and the EU Data Protection Directive.
He said the country would be open to a request for the emails under the 2001 Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, which governs the transfer of information in criminal case, but that the direct order from the US court about data held in another jurisdiction was inappropriate.
"Co-operation in the area of law enforcement is a fundamental element of our international relations, in particular with our partners in the US, which is why the issue of the transfer of the data itself is not objectionable, but rather the process that is being utilised,” he added.
The prospect of emails held in Ireland being handed over has drawn concern from technology companies – fearful of losing revenue from foreign customers worried that US law enforcement might win broad power to seize their data.
Microsoft in particular was stung by revelations last year by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and has been at pains to prove to customers that it does not allow the US government unchallenged access to personal data on its servers.
This case centres on an investigation into narcotics trafficking. US prosecutors reportedly obtained a search warrant last December to access an email account controlled and maintained by Microsoft servers in Dublin.
On Friday Judge Loretta Preska, chief of the US district court in New York, lifted a suspension on her order directing Microsoft to turn over the customer's emails by Friday, but the software company said it would not release any emails while it appeals the ruling.
A Microsoft spokesperson said: "We will not be turning over the email. Everyone agrees this case can and will proceed to the appeals court. This is simply about finding the appropriate procedure for that to happen."
The case appeared to be the first in which a corporation has challenged a US search warrant seeking data held abroad.
Murphy said that he had held talks with the European Commission about the implications of the ruling and would discuss the matter with the US Chargé d'Affaires and the American Chamber of Commerce in Dublin.
He said: "This would create significant legal uncertainty for Irish and EU consumers and companies regarding the protection of their data which, in this digital age, is everyone's most valuable asset."