Pic: AP.

Recent snooping into former employee’s emails is sure to raise eyebrows, writes Asia Sentinel’s Vanson Soo

There is an unspoken underlying tension in the workplace on privacy matters relating to office telephones, computers, emails, documents, CCTV cameras, etc. Employers like to think they reserve the right to probe what they consider their property while employees believe their turf should be clear from invasion.

This tension is nowhere better exemplified than by reports last Thursday that operatives with US tech giant Microsoft Inc. hacked into a blogger’s Hotmail account in the course of an investigation to try to identify an employee accused of stealing Microsoft trade secrets.

Based on Microsoft’s hacking, US prosecutors brought proceedings against Alex Kibkalo, a Russian and former Microsoft software architect from the company’s Lebanon office. Kibkalo was arrested last Wednesday on a tipoff by an external source who revealed an anonymous tech blogger in France in 2012 had received stolen lines of source code from the then yet-to-be released Windows 8 operating system. The blogger, noted for posting screenshots of pre-release versions of the Windows operating system, then sought expert advice from the undisclosed source.

“The source indicated that the blogger contacted the source using a Microsoft Hotmail email address that TWCI [Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing Investigations department] had previously connected to the blogger. After confirmation that the data was Microsoft’s proprietary trade secret, on Sept. 7, 2012 Microsoft’s Office of Legal Compliance (OLC) approved content pulls of the blogger’s Hotmail account,” according to the court filing documents.

Microsoft said it had acted within its rights and didn’t require a court order because its terms of service agreement – which most users don’t bother reading in detail – for its Outlook.com and Hotmail services permit under “exceptional circumstances.” However, the company said it would introduce a new policy to proceed with similar searches only after an outside attorney stamps approval to justify a court order.

But in this post-Snowden era the thought that anyone, especially the vendor, snooped into a private email account is sure to raise eyebrows given privacy violation concerns of technology companies these days. More disturbingly, Microsoft’s Outlook platform is ubiquitous in the corporate world.

The report of Microsoft’s hacking is a public relations disaster for the company, which has been critical of Google for scanning users’ emails for advertising purposes and now looks hypocritical.

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