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Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Microsoft's Terms of Service and Privacy

Microsoft has been in the news recently for accessing a user's Hotmail account without a court order. Microsoft revealed this information as part of a lawsuit it filed against a former employee who it accussed of stealing trade secrets.  The company received information that a French blogger had access to Windows operating system software code and wanted to find out who was the blogger's source.  Conveniently for Microsoft, the blogger had a Microsoft-operated Hotmail account.  The company's accessing of the emails and instant messages of the blogger was lawful because - you guessed it - it was permitted under the company's terms of service which state:

 

We also may share or disclose personal information, including the content of your communications:

  • To comply with the law or respond to legal process or lawful requests, including from law enforcement and government agencies.
  • To protect the rights or property of Microsoft or our customers, including enforcing the terms governing your use of the services.
  • To act on a good faith belief that access or disclosure is necessary to protect the personal safety of Microsoft employees, customers or the public.

Lest you think you can escape the intrusions of corporate peeking into personal communications by moving to another email provider, a quick check of the terms of service of Yahoo and Google showed nearly identical language in their privacy policies. 

 

Google’s terms of service state:

We will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to:

  • meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.
  • enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations.
  • detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues.
  • protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, our users or the public as required or permitted by law.

Yahoo’s is similar:

You acknowledge, consent and agree that Yahoo may access, preserve and disclose your account information and Content if required to do so by law or in a good faith belief that such access preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (i) comply with legal process; (ii) enforce the TOS; (iii) respond to claims that any Content violates the rights of third parties; (iv) respond to your requests for customer service; or (v) protect the rights, property or personal safety of Yahoo, its users and the public.

Interestingly, Microsoft's terms of service give the company less discretion to snoop through our emails than Google or Yahoo -- it can only do so to protect the company and its users.  Google or Yahoo can access communications to protect third party property interests.  But they wouldn't really do that without a court order, would they?  Oh, right.

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