Governments lean on Google for more user info

Google says requests from U.S. government entities for data on its users was up 6 percent in the last six months of 2012.

Governments around the world, especially the U.S., are requesting more data from Google on its users, the Internet search giant said Wednesday.

Google released the latest figures from its Transparency Report, and they show a continued steady increase in government requests for users’ data in the second half of 2012.

The U.S. led the way. In the last six months of 2012, Google said it received 8,476 requests from U.S. government agencies for user information — up 6 percent from the first half of year, and 33 percent from the same period in 2011. Worldwide, the company said it received 21,389 requests for data, a 2 percent rise from the first half 2012.

Second to the US. was India, the second-most-populous country, with 2,431 requests. France, Germany and the United Kingdom round out the top five.

Google has been sharing such "transparency" figures since 2010.

For the first time, Google provided a breakdown of the kinds of legal process that law-enforcement agencies and other government entities in the U.S. use when asking communications and technology companies to hand over user data.

The numbers show that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the requests Google received from U.S. government entities in the second half of last year were through subpoenas. "These are requests for user-identifying information, issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and are the easiest to get because they typically don’t involve judges," the company explained.

Twenty-two percent were through ECPA search warrants, which are authorized by judges in criminal cases. The remaining 10 percent were mostly court orders issued under ECPA by judges or other processes that are difficult to categorize, Google said.

"Usage of our services have increased every year, and so have the user data request numbers," Google explained in a blog post.

"We hope this report will shine some light on the appropriate scope and authority of government requests to obtain user data around the globe," the company added.

The full report can be found here.

An online privacy interest group said the data show the need for better Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures in a digital age.

"Today's report doesn't really tell us the full extent of unconstitutional privacy invasions. Law enforcement officials rightly note that they need subpoena access to subscriber information as the 'building blocks' for establishing probable case. They also insist they're already getting warrants for content information, even when ECPA doesn't require that. But we still don't have hard data on either claim," TechFreedom President Berin Szoka said in a statement.

"Worse, while large companies like Google may rightly refuse to turn over user data without a warrant, smaller companies without legal staffs may feel compelled to turn over private data with only a subpoena, or perhaps even without one at all."

Congress is considering overhauling the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act to include changes that would require law enforcement to obtain warrants issued by judges to access information such as e-mail.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has said that updating electronic privacy laws will be a technology priority for his panel in 2013.


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