Google Bristles at Government Information Requests

by Matt Klassen on January 24, 2013

In this age of privacy concerns juxtaposed with persistent terrorist threats there’s no question that the issue of government surveillance is a controversial topic. While government agencies need special permission to surveil one’s phones or enter one’s residence, there are surprisingly few restrictions around spying on one’s online activities. To that end, government agencies frequently force private tech companies to hand over sensitive information, using currently legal channels to make non-optional information requests.

For Google’s part, the search engine giant has found its company imperative ‘Don’t be Evil’ difficult to live up to amidst this pressure, as the company is obligated to cooperate with government agencies regarding legitimate information requests, while it bristles over the fact that Uncle Sam—and almost every other governmental body around the world—routinely forces it into compliance.

Not able to withstand the bureaucratic pressure, Google has devised its own clever retort, its bi-annual Transparency Report, which details what governments have made information requests to Google, and how many they have made. If nothing else this report stands as an explanation of sorts to the privacy watchdogs, shifting the blame for some privacy issues off Google and onto the government.

Tired of all these secretive backroom information requests, since 2010 Google has decided to take the privacy fight to the only place it really can: the public sphere. By informing the public about government requests and how the search engine giant handles them, Google is hoping that people will see that in this era of growing privacy concerns, Google is hamstrung in its efforts to employ any real protective standards for user information.

As CNET’s Casey Newton helpfully summarizes, “In the second half of 2012, Google received 8,476 requests for information, up 6 percent from the first half of 2012. Globally, Google received 21,389 requests for information, up 2 percent from the first half 2012. The number of requests went up even as the number of users affected went down — a 9 percent decrease in the United States, and 3 percent globally.”

The countries that topped Google’s list of most information requests in the second half of last year were:

  • United States(8,438 requests for information      about 14,791 users)
  • India(2,431 requests for information      about 4,106 users)
  • France(1,693 requests for information      about 2,063 users)
  • Germany(1,550 requests for information      about 1,944 users)
  • United Kingdom(1,458 requests for      information about 1,918 users)
  • Brazil(1,211 requests for information      about 2,526 users)

It’s clear that as privacy concerns grow Google wants everyone to know what legal processes the government uses to glean personal information. In the period covered in Google’s report, 68 percent of information requests came from subpoenas, the easiest to get because they usually don’t involve a judge; 22 percent came from search warrants issues under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA); and 10 percent that came through other channels, such as court orders etc…

In all this its obvious Google doesn’t like the fact it has to divulge such sensitive information about its users to the government, nor does it like the current ‘legal’ channels used to force it into doing so. In response, Google has taken the only means available to it to stand up to what it sees as at least unethical surveillance processes, it has informed the public. Just what the public will do with that knowledge, however, remains to be seen.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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