A Microsoft executive on Wednesday detailed the "frightening" abuse by the Department of Justice of "secrecy orders" that allow the government to take Americans' data from tech companies without ever letting them know.
Tom Burt, Microsoft's corporate vice president for customer security and trust, made the comments in a House Judiciary Committee hearing about Department of Justice abuse of such orders in prosecutions and leak investigations.
Burt lamented that "secrecy orders," which prevent Microsoft or other companies from letting customers know that the government is seeking their personal data, make it much easier for the government to skirt due process when pursuing an investigation. Therefore, Burt said, they've become shockingly "routine."
"It's no surprise then that through the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations, up to a third of all legal demands we received from federal law enforcement include secrecy orders, up to 3,500 in just one year," Burt said. "And these are just the demands on Microsoft. Add the demands likely served on Facebook, Apple, Twitter and others and you get a frightening sense of the mountain of secrecy orders used by federal law enforcement in recent years."
Burt said Microsoft takes steps to resist these requests, filing litigation to "assert our First Amendment right to inform our customers" and "ensure that citizens have the opportunity to exercise their Fourth Amendment rights."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif, remarked that the secrecy orders essentially force tech companies like Microsoft to take on an additional role protecting Americans' rights – which some may not be particularly interested in doing.
"The entire burden of protecting Fourth Amendment rights falls upon the service provider," she said.
George Washington University Law professor Jonathan Turley was also a witness at the hearing. He said established Supreme Court standards on data privacy are outdated and don't do enough to protect Americans.
"We have constantly seen privacy protections that have failed with new technology and this age we're living is making a mockery out of the standards made by the court," Turley said.
Burt continued: "Before cloud computing, if law enforcement wanted to get access to data on a computer or a network in your home or your office, they would have to obtain and serve a warrant in order to enter your premises and collect evidence…. However, today, if law enforcement wants to secretly search your virtual office in the cloud, they just serve a boilerplate warrant and secrecy order on your cloud provider that prevents notice to you."
Burt said examples of secrecy order "abuse" include orders used when the customer was a victim rather than a suspect; an investigation that targets one person in a "reputable" organization but the order prevents Microsoft from giving notice to anyone at an organization; and when the government secretly demands records that are the subject of a discovery dispute in another case.
The hearing Wednesday happened in the wake of revelations that the Justice Department secretly seized the records of several news organizations while investigating leaks under both the Trump and Biden administrations. The same thing happened during the Obama administration.
Burt said such invasive and secretive investigations are "not limited to investigations targeting the media and Congress" but affect everyday Americans as well.
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Fox News.