The Obama administration is working on a series of deals that would, for the first time, allow foreign governments to serve U.S. technology companies with warrants for email searches and wiretaps—a hotly debated issue in global debates over privacy, security, crime and terrorism. The administration is preparing to announce its first such agreement with the United Kingdom.
Word of the plans came one day after a federal appeals court ruled that Justice Department warrants couldn’t be used to search data held overseas by MicrosoftCorp.MSFT -0.07 %, dealing the agency a major legal defeat.
Brad Wiegmann, a senior official at the agency, discussed the efforts during a public discussion Friday.
The court’s decision in favor of Microsoft could prove to be a major barrier to the Obama administration’s proposed new rules to share data with other nations in criminal and terrorism probes, which would be sharply at odds with the ruling. It might also lead companies that provide services over the internet to reconfigure their networks to route customer data away from the U.S., putting the data out of the reach of federal investigators if the administration’s plan fails.
The Justice Department has indicated it is considering appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, agency officials are pressing ahead with their own plan for cross-border data searches.
Under the proposed deals described by Mr. Wiegmann, foreign investigators would be able to serve a warrant directly on a U.S. firm to see a suspect’s stored emails or intercept their messages in real time, as long as the surveillance didn’t involve U.S. citizens or residents.
“They wouldn’t be going to the U.S. government, they’d be going directly to the providers,’’ said Mr. Wiegmann. Any such arrangement would require that Congress pass new legislation, and lawmakers have been slow to update electronic privacy laws.
U.S. officials are preparing to announce such an agreement with U.K. authorities. The deal would need to be approved by the legislatures of both countries before it could take effect.
That agreement could become a template for similar deals with other countries, officials said.
Mr. Wiegmann said the U.S. would strike such deals only with nations that have clear civil liberties protections to ensure that the search orders aren’t abused.
“These agreements will not be for everyone. There will be countries that don’t meet the standards,’’ he said.
Greg Nojeim, a privacy advocate at the Center for Democracy and Technology, criticized the plan. He said it would be “swapping out the U.S. law for foreign law’’ and argued that U.K. search warrants have less stringent judicial protections than U.S. law.