Microsoft changes policy: won't read your Hotmail anymore to track down copyright infringement or theft without a court order


Microsoft read the email of Hotmail users without a warrant, in order to catch someone who'd leaked some Microsoft software. When they were caught out, the pointed out that they'd always reserved the right to read Hotmail users' email, and tried to reassure other Hotmail users by saying that they were beefing up the internal process by which they decided whose mail to read and when.

Now, citing the "'post-Snowden era' in which people rightly focus on the ways others use their personal information," the company has announced that it will not read its users' email anymore when investigating theft or copyright violations -- instead, it will refer this sort of thing to the police in future (they still reserve the right to read your Hotmail messages without a court order under other circumstances).

As Techdirt's Mike Masnick points out, this is a most welcome change. The message announcing the change by Brad Smith (General Counsel & Executive Vice President, Legal & Corporate Affairs) is thoughtful and forthright. It announces a future round-table on the questions raised by the company's snooping that the Electronic Frontier Foundation can participate in.

Smith asks a seemingly rhetorical question: "What is the best way to strike the balance in other circumstances that involve, on the one hand, consumer privacy interests, and on the other hand, protecting people and the security of Internet services they use?" That is indeed a fascinating question, but in the specific case of Hotmail, I feel like it has a pretty obvious answer: change your terms of service so that you promise not to read your customers' email without a court order. Then, if you think there's a situation that warrants invading your customers' privacy, get a court order. This is just basic rule-of-law stuff, and it's the kind of thing you'd hope Microsoft's General Counsel would find obvious.

The fact that the question is being raised casts more light on Microsoft's extensive "Scroogled" campaign, which (rightly) took Google to task for having a business-model that was predicated on harvesting titanic amounts of personal data. The takeaway here is that while Microsoft's business-model (at the moment) is less privacy-invading than Google's, that is not due to any inherent squeamishness about spying on people -- rather, it's just a practical upshot of its longstanding practices.

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Microsoft has always reserved the right to read and disclose your Hotmail messages

Microsoft's "Scroogled" campaign (no relation) boastfully compared Hotmail's privacy framework to Gmail's, condemning Google for "reading your mail." Now, Microsoft has admitted that it scoured the Hotmail messages belonging the contacts of a suspected leaker in order to secure his arrest, and points out that Hotmail's terms of service have always given Microsoft the right to read your personal mail for any of a number nebulously defined, general reasons.

The company says that is had an undisclosed "rigorous process" to determine when it is allowed to read and publish your private email. In a statement, it sets out what the process will be from now on (though it doesn't say what the process has been until now) and vows to include the instances in which it reads its users' mail in its transparency reports, except when it is secretly reading the Hotmail accounts of people who also work for Microsoft.

Here's a PGP tool that claims to work with Hotmail, and would theoretically leave your Hotmail messages unreadable to Microsoft, though the company could still mine your metadata (subject lines, social graph, etc).

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