Government Requests for Google Data Hit a New Record

Posted by at 10:22 am on July 19, 2016

google-logo-2015Google first started publishing its data request transparency report in 2009. Since then, the data requests it has received from governments around the world has continued to rise every year. Google saw the government data requests climb once again in the second half of 2015, with 40,677 data requests for 81,311 different user accounts.

That’s a 15 percent increase compared to the first half of the year (35,365 data requests), and a 30 percent increase compared to the second half of 2014 (30,140). Google doesn’t break down the requests into categories, so it can include everything from a local police request to a secret intelligence agency request (which Google may still be allowed to add in aggregate to its transparency report).

Microsoft has already complained, in a recent lawsuit against the U.S. government, that almost half of the data requests it receives are secret orders followed by a gag order, which is often in effect for an indefinite amount of time.
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There’s no reason to believe that Google, as well as other companies that offer email and cloud storage services, wouldn’t see similar types of requests. However, Google seems to be handing over the data only if it’s appropriate under the law, is signed by an authorized official, and after careful analysis of the request to determine if it’s too broad.

In a recent blog post that accompanied its latest transparency report, Google seems more optimistic due to what it sees as recent improvements in surveillance and privacy laws. These include the recent Privacy Shield agreement between the European Union and the U.S., and the U.S. Judicial Redress Act, which convinced the European Commission that the new Privacy Agreement is sufficiently legal. The Judicial Redress Act allows non-US persons to sue the U.S. government over illegal surveillance.

Google may be happier that it’s able to transfer data back to the U.S. again safely, rather than with the previous privacy restrictions. The new Privacy Shield agreement allows U.S. companies to transfer EU data legally to the U.S. once again, although under stricter privacy rules than before (under the watch of the U.S. Department of Commerce). Without the agreement, the U.S. companies transferring EU citizens’ data over to the U.S. were in a very gray legal area after the invalidation of the Safe Harbor agreement by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Google, along with Microsoft, Apple, and other technology companies formed the “Reform Government Surveillance” (RGS) coalition (shortly after the Snowden documents were revealed) to encourage the U.S. Congress and the executive branch to reform the U.S. surveillance laws and to create a more transparent framework for legitimate cross-border investigations. This coalition has continued to fight against proposed bills such as the Burr-Feinstein anti-encryption bill, and even the UK Investigatory Powers bill, and will probably continue to be a key player in these debates going forward.

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