It has been revealed that Microsoft tracked down an employee accused of stealing lines of code from the Windows 8 operating system by accessing the Hotmail (now rebranded Outlook) account and chat data of a French blogger.
Alex Kibkalo, a former Microsoft employee working in Lebanon, is facing federal criminal charges in the US for allegedly stealing trade secrets while working for the software giant in 2012. The case came to light when the charges were brought.
Kibalo is accused of selling the secrets, including lines of code from Windows 8 RT and Microsoft Activation Server Software Development Kit (SDK), to the blogger, who then posted the information on his site. The blogger's identity remains anonymous by order of the court.
The company stated that its existing rules allow it to look at private information in order to "protect the rights or property of Microsoft or our customers".
John Frank, VP and deputy general counsel for Microsoft, said the company took "extraordinary actions in this case".
However, while it may have been acting within its legal rights, the revelation of the issue is unwelcome for Microsoft, which has made efforts to differentiate itself from rival Google in terms of its privacy guarantees. Last year, as it promoted the launch of its revamped Outlook email service, Microsoft launched its "Scroogled" campaign accusing Google of disregarding the privacy of its Gmail users.
In order to reassure its users that Microsoft would not intercept their emails in a similar way, the company announced a change in its policies, saying that in future it would refer such cases to an independent legal advisor, requiring the same standard of evidence as it would if it were seeking an official court order.
"The privacy of our customers is incredibly important to us, and while we believe our actions in this particular case were appropriate given the specific circumstances, we want to be clear about how we will handle similar situations going forward," Frank said.
The issue of privacy has become an extremely thorny one for internet companies. Microsoft was one of those accused this week of colluding with the NSA in handing over users' data to the security services, despite previous denials.