WASHINGTON, May 2 (UPI) -- Tech giants including Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google are changing their policies to state they will notify users when the government requests their personal data.
This will give users the opportunity to fight data requests in court before the companies hand over their information. Prosecutors spoke against the policy change saying it will tip off criminals, allowing them to destroy evidence before it can be gathered.
"These risks of endangering life, risking destruction of evidence, or allowing suspects to flee or intimidate witnesses are not merely hypothetical, but unfortunately routine," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr told the Washington Post, citing a specific case in which early disclosure put a cooperative witness at risk. He did not give any details about the case as it remains sealed.
There are exceptions to the new policies, though. Any data requests from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are kept concealed by law. National security letters issued by the FBI also have a binding gag order.
Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google are all updating their policies this month to reflect the new notification standard. Yahoo announced a similar policy update back in July.
"That was one of the purposeful burdens that was supposed to limit government surveillance," said Marc Rotenberg, a Georgetown University law professor and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "As a historic matter, the intent always was that a person would be notified."
The new policies will directly affect federal, state and local investigators who are already facing rebuffs to their increasing number of data requests to tech companies. The tech companies have already been rejecting subpoenas and requiring authorities to obtain search warrants for disclosure of information, which require a stronger case for probable cause and a judge's approval.
"It serves to chill the unbridled, cost-free collection of data," said Albert Gidari Jr., a partner at Perkins Coie. "And I think that’s a good thing."