Microsoft won’t read your mail

By Nick Wingfield / New York Times News Service

Published Mar 29, 2014 at 12:01AM

SEATTLE — Microsoft will no longer snoop on customers’ private communications during investigations of stolen property, the company’s general counsel said Friday.

Instead, the general counsel, Bradford Smith, said Microsoft would hand over any such investigations to law enforcement agencies. Those agencies can then obtain court orders to inspect private communications on Microsoft’s Internet services, which include Outlook.com and Skype.

The change came a week after Microsoft faced an uproar over the methods it used in 2012 to investigate the suspected leak of software code by a former employee. An important break in that inquiry, which was conducted by an internal team at Microsoft, came when Microsoft read the private Hotmail emails and instant messages by an unidentified French blogger, which led it to the former Microsoft employee, Alex Kibkalo.

Microsoft said it performed such searches of private communications only in rare circumstances. Even though the searches appeared to be legal and in compliance with its own terms of service, the company faced criticism from privacy advocates who warned that it would discourage bloggers, journalists and others from using Microsoft communications services.

Reactions to Microsoft’s investigation were intensified by the fact that the company and its industry peers have been vocal critics of spying by the U.S. government, practices that have been revealed by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

“Over the past week, we’ve had the opportunity to reflect further on this issue, and as a result of conversations we’ve had internally and with advocacy groups and other experts, we’ve decided to take an additional step and make an important change to our privacy practices,” Smith said.