Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Tuesday will once again find itself wrestling with the balance between digital privacy and law enforcement — an uncomfortable yet increasingly common challenge for the justices. They’ll hear an hour of arguments in Microsoft v. United States, a potentially momentous case involving emails that are stored on overseas servers.

The issue: If an American email provider stores your emails on a server that's located in another country, does it have to hand those emails over in response to a warrant from U.S. law enforcement?

What they’re saying: The case hinges on the Stored Communications Act of 1986, in which Congress required law enforcement to get a warrant to search electronically stored communications.

  • The Justice Department argues that Congress clearly intended for companies like Microsoft to “disclose electronic communications within its control, regardless of whether the provider stores those communications in the United States or abroad.”
  • If search warrants don’t cover emails stored overseas, the Justice Department argues, that provides an easy path to get away with crimes including terrorism, child pornography and drug trafficking.

The other side: Microsoft accuses the government of making a policy argument, not a legal one — and those decisions are up to Congress, not the courts.

  • In the meantime, it argues, a ruling in the government’s favor here would open the door to retaliation.
  • “If the U.S. government obtains the power to search and seize foreign citizens’ private communications physically stored in other countries, it will invite other governments to do the same thing,” Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith wrote in a blog post. “If we ignore other countries’ laws, how can we demand that they respect our laws?”

Between the lines: This is the second big case this term that forces the court to fit modern technology into a legal structure written long ago. The court heard arguments in November in a case about law enforcement’s access to cell-phone location records.

  • It’s not a place the justices are very comfortable. During the cell-phone arguments, they wrestled with the clear limits of the legal precedent before them as well as the need to write their ruling in a way that doesn’t tie a future court’s hands as technology continues to evolve.
  • Expect to see similar hand-wringing this week. Cases that pit privacy against law enforcement can scramble the court’s left-right divide; the application to modern technology can scramble them even more.

Go deeper

U.S. sanctions Chinese officials over Uighur human rights abuses

Photo: Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images

The Treasury Department announced Thursday that the U.S. has sanctioned four Chinese Communist Party officials and the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau for human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Why it matters: The sanctions designations, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Act passed by Congress in 2016, mark a significant escalation in the Trump administration's response to the Chinese government's detainment of over 1 million Uighurs in internment camps.

Updated 23 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 2 p.m. ET: 12,118,667 — Total deaths: 551,271 — Total recoveries — 6,649,930Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 2 p.m. ET: 3,081,383 — Total deaths: 132,570 — Total recoveries: 953,420 — Total tested: 37,431,666Map.
  3. Public health: Cases rise in 33 statesFlorida reports highest single-day coronavirus death toll since pandemic began.
  4. Science: World Health Organization acknowledges airborne transmission of coronavirus.
  5. Travel: Young adults are most likely to have moved due to coronavirus.
39 mins ago - World

China's extraterritorial threat

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

All multinational companies and executives need to worry about breaking U.S. law, no matter where they're based or doing business. Now, they need to worry about Chinese law, too.

Why it matters: The projection of U.S. norms and laws around the world has been an integral (and much resented) part of America's "soft power" since 1945. As China positions itself to replace the USA as global hegemon, expect it to become increasingly assertive along similar lines.