Microsoft Promises to Report Government Surveillance

by Matt Klassen on January 5, 2016

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Microsoft has made a New Year’s resolution to inform users when their online accounts and/or communications are targeted by government surveillance, a report said late last week, following the path recently taken by fellow tech titans Google and Facebook.

While Microsoft already informs users when flags are raised regarding potential unauthorized third party access to accounts, the company is taking further steps to make it clear when that access is requested or forced by government “actors”. According to the company’s statement, it will now notify users if their Microsoft account, including OneDrive and Outlook.com email, has been “targeted or compromised by an individual or group working on behalf of a nation state.”

The company was quick to point out that such warnings do not necessarily mean Microsoft’s own systems have been compromised, only that certain accounts are garnering attention—legal or illegal—from government agencies and further action and security precautions should be taken to maintain privacy.

Of course governments are now fighting back against such policies, as the UK’s controversial Investigatory Powers Bill will make it illegal to inform anyone that their accounts are being targeting, with staff of such tech companies potentially facing upwards of two years in jail for altering users about state sanctioned monitoring.

For several years now tech companies and social media firms have been unwilling conscripts in the war on privacy, often forced to provide backdoors or otherwise granting access to accounts and user information when requested by the government. This situation has put these companies in a very awkward position, compelled to maintain the privacy of their users while abiding by lawful information requests.

To combat the bad press companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have garnered due to their conscription, these firms have battled back, pledging to now reveal to users when access requests have been made, or when evidence indicates access has already been taken by state sponsored agents.

As Microsoft Vice President Scott Charney explains, “If you receive one of these notifications it doesn’t necessarily mean that your account has been compromised, but it does mean we have evidence your account has been targeted, and it’s very important you take additional measures to keep your account secure…You should also make sure your computer and other devices don’t not have viruses or malware installed, and that all your software is up to date.

Of course this raises a contentious debate regarding privacy vs. public safety, as governments are claiming that without such access to online information national security will be compromised, while private tech firms maintain their primary obligation is to their customers, not to governments.

While this battle is brewing here in North America, it’s already well underway in the UK, where the British government has drafted the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, which obligates companies to hand over data to authorized security services, and threatens punishment up to two years in prison for those who disclose any ongoing operations by the government or police, meaning Microsoft’s grand plan to heighten user privacy could land someone in jail.

For Microsoft’s part, the company has stated that it will not reveal which state or ‘actors’ are behind the attempt to access your account, only that the hacking attempt is coming from such sources.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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