Google: We're bombarded by gov't requests on user data

Requests from governments worldwide for user information have more than doubled since three years ago. Worse still, says Google, is what the US won't let us tell you.

Don Reisinger
Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
3 min read
A look at Google's requests over the years.
A look at Google's requests over the years. Google

The US government is on a data-gathering spree at Google, new data from the search giant reveals.

Between January and June 2013, the US government issued nearly 11,000 requests to Google asking for user information, or about 42 percent of the global total. India was second with nearly 2,700 government requests.

The collective requests from governments around the world during that six-month period have more than doubled in the three-and-a-half years since Google's first government transparency report, which covered the second half of 2009. "And these numbers," Google said in a blog post Thursday, "only include the requests we're allowed to publish."

It's the things that Google can't share about those data requests that really has the company hot and bothered.

"We believe it's your right to know what kinds of requests and how many each government is making of us and other companies," Google Legal Director Richard Salgado wrote in the blog post. "However, the US Department of Justice contends that US law does not allow us to share information about some national security requests that we might receive. Specifically, the U.S. government argues that we cannot share information about the requests we receive (if any) under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But you deserve to know."

To underscore that point, Google posted a quartet of graphs illustrating the volume and nature of the government requests. In the fourth of the four graphs, to reflect the constraints on its ability to provide transparency on national security-related FISA requests, Google drew thick black lines over a barely visible bar chart, in the manner of a heavily redacted document.

FISA has become a hot-button topic this year after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released secrets on the US government's alleged spying activities. The US government has used FISA to block technology companies like Google from sharing what kind of requests they've received. Some of those companies brought a federal case earlier this year in an attempt to share that information. So far, those efforts have failed.

Apple last week released its latest report on government data requests, with a similar call for the US government to open up. These sorts of transparency reports have become a regular thing for tech titans, with the list also including Twitter, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook.

Google also urged Washington to take action to shore up privacy protections for US citizens:

We strongly believe that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) must be updated in this Congress, and we urge Congress to expeditiously enact a bright-line, warrant-for-content rule. Governmental entities should be required to obtain a warrant--issued based on a showing of probable cause--before requiring companies like Google to disclose the content of users' electronic communications.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been one of the more outspoken critics of the US government's secrecy. In a statement on Thursday, the organization's legislative counsel, Christopher Calabrese, expressed much the same outrage :

Law enforcement requests to Google have tripled in four years but we're still stuck with the same Internet privacy law we had in 1986. If police need a warrant to open someone's mail than they should need one to rifle through someone's e-mail, regardless of its age or if it's stored on a company's server. It's time Congress and the president updated (the) Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) so there's only one standard for government access to the content of our electronic communications: a warrant based upon probable cause. Anything less is indefensible.

It bears noting that many government requests for user data are of a rather routine law enforcement nature. Of the 10,918 requests made by the US in the first half of 2013, for instance, 68 percent were subpoenas, and 22 percent were warrants, according to Google.

In the second half of 2009, the period covered by Google's first transparency report, the US government made 3,580 data requests, for about 28 percent of the global total of 12,539 requests.

Correction, 7:34 a.m. PT: This story originally miscast some details of the government data requests to Google. US government requests accounted for 42 percent of the global total from January to June 2013. Google's first transparency report covered the period from July to December 2009.