Google Reports Record Number of Government Requests for User Data
The number of government requests for user information from Google reached new highs in the second half of last year, according to the company’s latest transparency report. The United States was far and away the biggest source of information requests during the six-month period, with 12,523 separate requests covering 27,157 different user accounts.
That's almost twice the number of requests from Germany, the second biggest source of data requests with 7,491, and more than three times that of France, which made only 4,174 requests during the same period.
Transparency reports like those pioneered by Google are incredibly valuable because they create a baseline to help all of us understand how government gathers data about citizens, Chris Calabrese, vice president of policy, Center for Democracy & Technology, told us via email.
"For example, this report demonstrates an increase in government requests and highlights the need to ensure that human rights protections are built into surveillance laws worldwide so that privacy rights are interfered with only when strictly necessary," he said.
Rising Requests, Declining Compliance
The stats reflect the number of law enforcement agency requests for information received by Google and YouTube. Google, which reviews each request to ensure that it complies with both the spirit and the letter of the law, said that it could refuse to produce information or try to narrow the requests in some cases.
The number of requests Google receives from governments has increased steadily every year since the second half of 2009, when it received about the same number of requests from governments worldwide as it received from the U.S. in the last six months of 2015, according to the transparency report.
The company also began reporting the percentage of requests it complied with either in whole or in part. While the number of requests has risen sharply, the share with which Google complies has fallen slowly, from 76 percent of requests in 2010 to 64 percent at the end of last year.
Despite the increasing number of requests the company is receiving, Google legal director Richard Salgado said that he was pleased with some of the improvements in surveillance laws recently such as the Privacy Shield, the new data transfer agreement between the U.S. and the European Commission. And earlier his year, President Barack Obama also signed the Judicial Redress Act, creating a process for extending procedural protections to non-U.S. persons.
No Such Agency
“This shift helps address concerns about the ability of non-U.S. persons to redress grievances concerning data collected and stored by the U.S. government under U.S. law,” Salgado wrote in a blog post. “Indeed, the distinctions that U.S. privacy and surveillance laws make between U.S. and non-U.S. persons are increasingly obsolete in a world where communications primarily take place over a global medium: the Internet.”
But despite the more encouraging developments, the company remains hamstrung with regard to the amount of data it can legally provide concerning the information requests it receives.
For example, in the case of National Security Letters (NSL), which are similar to subpoenas, the Federal Bureau of Investigation can prohibit Google from disclosing the fact that it has even received such requests. NSL requests can be issued by executive branch agencies, but must relate to investigations into national security issues and cannot be related to ordinary criminal, civil, or administrative matters. Requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA requests, similarly prohibit recipients from revealing that they exist.
Image credit: Google; Artist's concept.