Google: Government Surveillance Increasing

Governments all over the world want to get their hands on user data from Google for a variety of purposes. Google started tracking the number of these requests in 2010, and has released these numbers in transparency reports every six month. This week, with the search giant’s sixth transparency report, it’s clear to see that these requests are increasing.

You can read Google’s official blog post summarizing the report, or go directly to the user data requests  section of the full transparency report. You might also be interested in the government removal requests  section of the report.

Just how bad has it gotten? Requests for data from governments have shown a steady increase, from 12,539 when Google began reporting them in 2010 to 20,938 in this week’s report. The number of requests doesn’t quite tell the full story, though, since one “request” can ask for multiple pieces of information. Those 20,938 requests “were for information from about 34,614 accounts,” according to Google.

The trend from governments to request removal of material from Google, on the other hand, looks a little more complicated. Google says that it “was largely flat from 2009 to 2011.” It jumped in this reporting period, however. The search engine’s chart showed 1,048 removal requests for the six-month period ending in December 2011. From January through June 2012, “there were 1,791 requests from government officials around the world to remove 17,746 pieces of content.”

Google’s transparency report includes some nice interactive elements. For example, the table that lists removal requests can be sorted by country, number of requests, percentage of compliance, and more. Not too surprisingly, the United States heads the list for number of court-ordered requests for removal, as well as items requested to be removed – however, the search engine complied with less than half of these court-ordered requests. Its compliance was much higher for certain other countries.

Why would Google not comply with a content removal request? “Some requests may not be specific enough for us to know what the government wanted us to remove…and others involve allegations of defamation through informal letters from government agencies, rather than court orders,” Google explained. Also, the search engine noted in its FAQ that they sometimes receive falsified court orders, “and if we determine that a court order is false, we will not comply with it.”

User data requests from governments may be more worrisome. All countries seem to be showing an up trend here, with the United States leading the pack. In the six-month period covered in the report, the US government made 7,969 requests for user data covering 16,281 accounts – and Google fully or partially complied with these requests ninety percent of the time. These numbers represent more than a third of all user data requests made worldwide – and close to half of the accounts covered in user data requests.

So if you have a Gmail or other Google account, should you be worried? That depends on whether you’ve committed a crime, or have a close association to someone who has. According to Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security, “The government can’t just wander through your emails just because they’d like to know what you’re thinking or doing.” As he explained to the Associated Press, though, “[I]f the government is investigating a crime, it has a lot of authority to review people’s emails.” Even so, the trend is very clear: governments want more information about you, and may be beginning to rein in some of the free-flowing data online. Still, given the sheer size of the Internet, there’s no need to get paranoid yet.

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