US law enforcement can force Microsoft to turn over emails it stores in Ireland, a judge ruled in a case that technology companies have rallied around as they pursue billions of dollars in data storage business abroad.
US District Judge Loretta A. Preska ruled from the bench on Thursday after hearing oral arguments in Manhattan.
She said she agreed with the findings of a magistrate judge who approved a sealed search warrant in December for a consumer email account Microsoft stores in Dublin, Ireland.
Preska said it was a question of who controlled the data rather than where it was stored. The information could be produced by Microsoft in the United States without intruding on the foreign sovereignty of Ireland, she added.
A court or law enforcement agency in the United States is empowered to order a person or entity to produce materials, even if the information or person possessing the information is outside the US, Preska said.
The Redmond, Washington-based software company has said rulings forcing it to turn over emails threaten to rewrite the Constitution's protections against illegal search and seizure and could damage US foreign relations. Its arguments were joined by large technology companies, including Apple, Cisco Systems, Verizon Communications and AT&T.
The judge stayed the effect of her ruling to give the company time to appeal.
US investigators were seeking the information from Microsoft as part of a narcotics investigation.
E. Joshua Rosenkranz, Microsoft's attorney, had argued unsuccessfully that the search warrant amounted to the extension of US law enforcement authority to another country.
He said it also increased the likelihood that other countries would try to access information in the United States.
Rosenkranz said authorities in China had appeared at Microsoft offices there this week demanding a password to access material that the company stores in the United States.
Preska said the actions in China sounded "pretty scary to me" and asked for a response from Assistant US Attorney Serrin Andrew Turner.
Turner said the possibility of retaliation by other nations existed, but that it was a diplomatic issue. He said lawyers in the case had cited no laws in Ireland that would forbid Microsoft from turning over the data.
A Microsoft vice president wrote in a court document that the company offers its cloud services in more than 100 countries and tries to keep a customer's data - including email, calendar entries and documents - in a data centre near where the customer is located for easy and cost-effective access. Microsoft maintains data centers worldwide, including in the United States, Ireland, the Netherlands, Japan and Brazil.