by Kate Westmoreland, Non-Residential Fellow, The Center for Internet & Society at Stanford Law School
As internet companies and cloud providers hold more and more communications and user data, access to this information has become a key part of criminal investigations and prosecutions. The current system for managing international access to this data is struggling under the increased demand. Microsoft’s Brad Smith has been vocal in his calls for a new international convention on access to user data for criminal matters. But is a whole new convention really necessary?
The answer depends on (1) whether the system is actually broken and, if so, (2) whether a new international convention is the right solution. Perhaps I should give a spoiler alert on this, but I think the answer is “yes, but don’t put all your eggs in the one basket.” Ultimately, we should be working towards a new international system for managing government requests for user data, but this is a very long-term, ambitious project. In the meantime, we need to pursue a range of shorter-term improvements at the domestic and international levels.
There is a growing consensus that the current system for international government access to user data in criminal matters is broken. It is governed by a creaky old system of bilateral and multilateral treaties (mutual legal assistance treaties or “MLATs”), relationships between law enforcement officers and companies, and a mishmash of domestic legislation. A government report last year stated that MLAT requests to the United States take an average of at least 10 months to process. The White House then called for increased funding to process the requests more quickly, but the appropriation has stalled. When law enforcement agencies feel that they cannot access the information through mutual legal assistance, they turn to alternative, informal methods, including directly asking companies to hand over the data.