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Google reports all-time high of government data requests

In Google's latest transparency report, even more governments want to know what people are doing online.

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With so many products under Google's umbrella, a government request for data can mean handing over a lot.

James Martin/CNET

Governments around the world are doing a record amount of searching on Google, but it's a kind of searching than you and I do.

The search engine giant released its biannual transparency report on Thursday, disclosing to the public how often it gets requests from the government for users' private information, along with how often Google hands it over. The first half of 2017 broke a record for most Google user data requests over a six-month period.

Between Jan. 1 and June 30, Google received 48,941 requests for data from 83,345 accounts from governments around the world. The company complied with 65 percent of them, meaning more than 54,000 accounts were affected by this.

That's 4,000 more requests than the same time period in 2016. The number of reported requests on Google have been steadily increasing since 2009, when the company's transparency reports began, except in 2014. The latest report sets an all-time high.

More and more governments are eyeing tech companies for information in their investigations and national security issues. The Department of Homeland Security has viewed social media as a tool to monitor immigrants, while police have seeked voice data from Amazon to help with a murder trial. Apple also reported an all-time high with its transparency report released on Thursday, showing that national security requests tripled since last year.

Tech companies like Google and Apple often release these transparency reports to let their users know how frequently government officials demand data from them. From these transparency reports, we can see that governments are interested in how people use their technology more than ever for Google. Apple on Wednesday, for example, updated its privacy minisite that explains how Apple keeps customers' information safe and private. In a tweet Thursday, Apple CEO Tim Cook called privacy "a fundamental human right." 

Because of Google's massive ecosystem, these requests would mean handing over data on content like your Gmail messages, documents you've saved, videos watched on YouTube, or any web activity that falls under Google's umbrella.Google has argued against the US government for the right to disclose these requests, including a lawsuit in 2013 to fight gag orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In the first half of 2017, Google received up to 500 national security letters for up to 1,500 accounts. These are letters demanding information that don't need a judge's approval because they're signed by the FBI. Companies are only allowed to disclose how many of these letters they receive in intervals of 250, so there's no specific number for Google.

Google is compelled to provide information to the US government under Section 702 of the FISA Amendment, legislation that is set to expire at the end of 2017. Google, along with Microsoft and Amazon, have called on politicians to change the internet surveillance bill.

"Government access laws are due for a fundamental realignment and update in light of the proliferation of technology, the very real security threats to people, and the expectations of privacy that Internet users have in their communications," Google said in a blog post alongside its transparency report. 

First published Sept. 28, 4 p.m. PT
Update, 5:10 p.m.: Adds information on Apple's privacy and transparency minisite.