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What Google's Transparency Report doesn't tell us

Jaikumar Vijayan | Jan. 28, 2013
Statutory rules prevent company from releasing full details of government data collection requests.

Google's Transparency Reports, released every six months, are interesting not just for what they reveal about government requests for Internet user data, but also for what they do not reveal.

Transparency reports are basically a biannual compilation of requests Google receives from governments around the world for Internet user data. The reports, which have been generally lauded by privacy experts, are an effort by Google to keep users informed about the data requests and how often it complies with them.

The company's latest report, released on Wednesday, shows that the U.S. government again led other nations in submitting the most requests for user data with Google. In the second half of 2012, the U.S. put in 8,438 requests for Internet user data, up 6% from the 7,979 requests it placed in the first six months of the year.

Between 2011 and 2012, U.S. data requests from Google increased by more than 30%.

More than two-thirds of the data requests from the U.S. government were by subpoenas issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that did not require any kind of judicial oversight. Only about 1,900 of the requests had probable cause warrants attached to them. Google complied with close to 88% of the requests it received from the U.S. government.

Sobering as the numbers are, they do not tell the full story, according to privacy advocates and rights groups.

Google's transparency reports do not include requests for user data made by the government under the U.S. Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendment Act or through the use of National Security Letters (NSLs). Most of the requests made via these statutes are tied to national security issues and often compel providers to disclose far more data than ECPA subpoenas and court orders permit.

Google has said that it will try to release more information about such requests in the future. But how it will do so remains to be seen, because companies that receive NSLs and requests under the Patriot Act and FISA are not allowed to publicly disclose the requests.

As a result, it's unclear how many more requests Google might have received from the government, how intrusive those requests were or how many people might have been impacted by the requests, said Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Getting this information is "incredibly important, because we have no idea how much surveillance requests Google is getting or how many people are being targeted," he said.

The Patriot Act and FISA give the government enormous leeway to collect all kinds of information on wide swathes of people without requiring a warrant based on probable cause, Timm noted. "Even a few senators have said that if people knew how [the Patriot Act and FISA] are being interpreted they would be shocked," he said. "They have insinuated that the government is using [these laws] as a dragnet to gather information" on huge numbers of people.


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