Jan 292013
Privacy image

Image courtesy of Fast Company

Last week Google released its latest Transparency Report. (Official Google post here and New York Times piece here.) It documents a steady rise in government requests to Google for personally identifiable information on its users. The report also highlighted how the majority of these requests are not sanctioned by a search warrant.

When I last looked at Google’s biannual report, my focus was on how increasingly consumers are forced to rely on private companies, not the government, for privacy protection online. Technology is moving too fast for the regulatory structure to adapt. This report suggests that not only isn’t the government adequately protecting online privacy, it’s usually the entity trying to force companies to release confidential information on users.

Google reports a 70 percent increase over the past three years of such requests. According to Google, these are the percentages from July through December of 2012:

  • 68 percent of the requests Google received from government entities in the U.S. were through subpoenas. These are requests for user-identifying information, issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”), and are the easiest to get because they typically don’t involve judges.
  • 22 percent were through ECPA search warrants. These are, generally speaking, orders issued by judges under ECPA, based on a demonstration of “probable cause” to believe that certain information related to a crime is presently in the place to be searched.
  • The remaining 10 percent were mostly court orders issued under ECPA by judges or other processes that are difficult to categorize.


Government Requests for Google User Data

Graph courtesy of statista.com


Is 8,438 too high a number over six months in a country this big, and in times like these? I’m not a security expert privy to threat information so I can’t really say. Reasonable people can disagree about how best to protect privacy online, while also doing what we can to protect from enemies who would do us harm. Context is critical when debating this issue.

And context is exactly what reports like this can give citizens, and policy makers. We can’t strike the right balance on online privacy while working in the dark. I hope more companies follow Google’s lead and release this type of data on a regular basis.


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