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Originally published September 4, 2013 at 8:50 PM | Page modified September 5, 2013 at 10:41 AM

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Editorial: The public’s stake in Microsoft’s NSA lawsuit

What is the relationship between U.S. technology companies and the security apparatus of the U.S. government? A lawsuit might be revealing.

Seattle Times Editorial

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MICROSOFT’S intention to move ahead with a lawsuit to force more information to be revealed about federal surveillance orders is welcome news for consumers.

Right now the public is in the dark about how much of its ostensibly private communication has been shared with the National Security Agency (NSA) and how vigorously the technology companies cooperated.

Microsoft filed suit in June, and last week the company’s general counsel Brad Smith announced in a blog that negotiations with the federal government had broken down. Microsoft and Google would proceed in court.

This is a legal skirmish, but it is also a public-relations battle for the hearts and minds of consumers who have been reading about vast access to information stored by cloud-computing providers, as well as generic email traffic.

This is a war of words, without any intermediary to sort out the facts for consumers. Maybe some form of legally induced transparency is what it will take.

News accounts in The Guardian in July referred to files provided by Edward Snowden, the U.S. secrets leaker who sought refuge in Russia. The story said, “Microsoft has collaborated closely with U.S. intelligence services to allow users’ communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company’s own encryption.”

Smith in a July blog lamented significant inaccuracies in the interpretation of the leaked government files. No keys to data were provided, Smith wrote, and he said Microsoft only provided specified content it was compelled by law to give.

Microsoft wants the government to be more forthcoming about its own requests and to differentiate for the public between requests for information about individual traffic and actual message content.

Existing rules preclude the technology companies from acknowledging requests sought under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

This is also a wider PR struggle over perceptions. Were the companies paid to provide information? Yes, but it was a reimbursement for expenses, as provided for law enforcement and other entities that gather requested data.

Agence France-Presse reported six large high-tech lobby groups sent a letter to President Obama saying more transparency “can assist in re-establishing trust, both domestically and globally.”

Transparency is important. Smith’s July blog notes that “Microsoft is obligated to comply with the applicable laws that governments around the world — not just the United States — pass, and this includes responding to legal demands for customer data.” Indeed, what is being shared with whom?

Elaboration in open court about the nature of corporate duties to turn over information to all governments would be illuminating.

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