Microsoft to encrypt services, notify users of gov't data requests

Plans to encrypt data traveling on its services by the end of 2014

Microsoft moved to reassure business and government customers worldwide that it is committed to informing them of legal orders related to their data, and will fight in court any 'gag order' that prevents it from sharing such information with customers.

The company also plans to encrypt customers' information moving between its data centers, with plans to complete the project by the end of 2014.

The Redmond, Washington, software and Internet services company is responding to concerns in the U.S. and other countries about government surveillance, particularly after revelations by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, that the agency is engaged in dragnet surveillance of email, phone records, and mobile location data of people in the U.S and abroad.

The NSA also taps into communications links between Google and Yahoo's data centers worldwide, according to a report. Both Google and Yahoo have announced that they are strengthening encryption on their services. Yahoo said last month it will encrypt all information that moves between its data centers by the end of the first quarter of next year. It announced earlier that it would roll out SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption with a 2048-bit key across its network by Jan. 8.

In a blog post late Wednesday, Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs, wrote that the company shared customers' concerns about government surveillance of the Internet. "That's why we are taking steps to ensure governments use legal process rather than technological brute force to access customer data," he added.

Microsoft plans to take new steps to reinforce legal protections for its customers' data, including committing to notifying business and government customers if it receives legal orders related to their data.

"Where a gag order attempts to prohibit us from doing this, we will challenge it in court," Smith wrote. "We've done this successfully in the past, and we will continue to do so in the future to preserve our ability to alert customers when governments seek to obtain their data."

Microsoft said that except in the most limited circumstances, government agencies could approach business and government customers directly for information or data about one of their employees, just as they did before customers moved to the cloud. "And when those limited circumstances arise, courts should have the opportunity to review the question and issue a decision," it added.

The company said it would use best-in-class cryptography, including Perfect Forward Secrecy and 2048-bit key lengths, to encrypt by default customer content moving between Microsoft and customers. "All of our key platform, productivity and communications services will encrypt customer content as it moves between our data centers," Smith wrote. Microsoft is also in talks with other service providers to ensure that data, like email, traveling between service providers is protected. Perfect Forward Secrecy makes it difficult to decrypt data at a later date, even if the secret key is available.

Office 365 and Outlook.com customer content is already encrypted when traveling between customers and Microsoft, and most Office 365 workloads as well as Windows Azure storage are now encrypted in transit between Microsoft's data centers, Smith said. "In other areas we're accelerating plans to provide encryption," he added.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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