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US Gov't Getting Snoopier and Snoopier, Says Google

US Gov't Getting Snoopier and Snoopier, Says Google

Requests for information about Google users from U.S. government authorities jumped 29 percent in the first six months of the year, according to a recent report issued by the online search company. "Google does a better job in a lot of ways than most companies about receipt of government process," the EFF's Matt Zimmerman told TechNewsWorld. Nevertheless, Google could be more transparent, he noted.

By John P. Mello Jr.
10/26/11 8:23 AM PT

Government authorities in the United States showed an increased interest in Google account holders in the first half of 2011, according to a report released Tuesday by the search giant.

The report showed that 5,950 requests for information were made by U.S. government authorities during the first six months of this year, compared with 4,601 requests during the last six months of last year -- an increase of 29 percent.

"The number of requests we receive for user account information as part of criminal investigations has increased year after year," the report explained. "The increase isn't surprising, since each year we offer more products and services, and we have a larger number of users."

Of the near 6,000 requests for user information, which affected 11,057 accounts, Google fully or partially complied with 93 percent of them.

There can be many reasons why Google will or will not comply with a request for information from a government, according to the company. Google said it complies with valid legal requests. Generally, requests must be in writing, signed by an authorized official of the requesting agency and issued under an appropriate law.

Muddy Significance

Google's "Transparency Report" is prepared every six months and details requests by countries around the world made to the company to take down information from its websites, including YouTube, or to obtain information about user accounts.

Google hopes this step toward transparency will help in ongoing discussions about the appropriate scope and authority of government requests, according to its report.

However, the importance of the report's findings is a bit muddy, according to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"I'm not quite sure what significance we can assign to Google's report," he told TechNewsWorld. "There are some interrelated issues there in terms of the company's own conduct."

Some of those requests for user account information, for example, might be related to matters such as investigations by regulators into Google's Street View product, he explained.

He acknowledged, however, that government surveillance has been on the rise in the United States recently. An analysis of federal wiretap reports performed by his organization in May revealed an increase in wiretap activity in the United States, as well as an jump in the use Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants.

FISA warrants are issued by a special federal court created solely for that purpose. Proceedings are secret, although a judge may ask for written third-party input. Parties targeted by the warrants typically don't know they're under government scrutiny.

Law Reform Needed

Regardless of Google's problems with government regulators, the company should be commended for its transparency efforts, argued Matt Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"Google does a better job in a lot of ways than most companies about receipt of government process," he told TechNewsWorld.

Nevertheless, Google could be more transparent, he noted.

"There are other types of information that would be tremendously helpful for users to see how well Google is protecting their privacy," he said. For example, it would be helpful to know what government agencies are requesting information and what kind of legal authority is being claimed.

"What Google's done is certainly a very useful bird's eye view, and I look forward in the future of, hopefully, getting a little more detail," he observed.

Google has added more detail in this latest report. It has opened up the raw data on which the report is based, as well as the number of accounts affected by an information request.

"We believe that providing this level of detail highlights the need to modernize laws like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act [ECPA], which regulates government access to user information and was written 25 years ago -- long before the average person had ever heard of email," Google Senior Policy Analyst Dorothy Chou wrote in a company blog.

The hoary ECPA could be part of the reason for the bump up in information requests at Google, maintained Chris Conley, a technology and civil liberties fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

"As technology continues to advance, it becomes more and more impractical to rely on an outdated law to protect our information," he told TechNewsWorld.

"It's not surprising that the government is taking advantage of this to issue more demands than it did six months ago," he added. "There's more information available, and protections aren't keep up."


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