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Google: Here's how we handle government requests about you

The Internet know-it-all marks Data Privacy Day by answering Transparency Report questions you may have, such as "In what situations wouldn't you tell me about a request for my information?"

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
3 min read
Privacy is a constant concern for Internet users, and Google today detailed how it approaches government requests for user data.

That includes a new section the company today added to its Transparency Report that answers questions users may have, such as "In what situations wouldn't you tell me about a request for my information?" (The answer is: Google can't notify you if your account is closed or if the company is legally prohibited from doing so. "We sometimes fight to give users notice of a data request by seeking to lift gag orders or unseal search warrants.")

Google has a pretty fine line to walk when it comes to privacy. It collects a vast amount of data about individuals that can allow it to determine who a person is, where they're located, and what they like, among other items. That information helps Google deliver better results and services, but it also threatens anonymity online. And government agencies increasingly rely on Google for information about users.

As Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond wrote in a blog post today to mark Data Privacy Day:

"It's important for law enforcement agencies to pursue illegal activity and keep the public safe. We're a law-abiding company, and we don't want our services to be used in harmful ways. But it's just as important that laws protect you against overly broad requests for your personal information."

The blog post comes about a week after Google released its latest Transparency Report. That report revealedthat the number of requests from U.S. authorities for information about users has been steadily growing. In the second half of 2012, Google received 8,438 U.S. requests for information, up 6 percent from the first half of 2012. Globally, Google received 21,389 requests, up 2 percent from the first half of the year.

Google today noted that along with the new section in its transparency report, it also will continue pushing for updating laws like the U.S. Electronic Communications Privacy Act. In addition, it will continue its "long-standing strict process for handling these kinds of requests."

Here's a rundown of that process, according to Drummond:

  • Google scrutinizes the request carefully to make sure it's legal and complies with Google's policies. To consider complying, a request typically must be made in writing, signed by an authorized official, and issued under an appropriate law.
  • Google evaluates the scope of the request. If it's too broad, it may refuse to provide the information or seek to narrow the request. Drummond noted Google does this frequently.
  • Google notifies users about legal demand when appropriate. Sometimes it can't, either because it's legally prohibited or because it doesn't have a user's verified contact information.
  • Google requires that government agencies conducting criminal investigations use a search warrant to compel it to provide a user's search query information and private content stored in a Google account, like Gmail messages, documents, photos, and YouTube videos.

"We're proud of our approach, and we believe it's the right way to make sure governments can pursue legitimate investigations while we do our best to protect your privacy and security," Drummond said.