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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.

Concerns about these laws recently prompted the European Parliament's Directorate General for Internal Policies to warn companies in the EU about the potential privacy implications of having their data hosted with U.S cloud services.

Google itself appears to be digging its heels in a bit. Google spokesman Chris Gaither said the company has been making an effort to ensure that all government requests for data follow the law and are not overly broad. "We notify users about legal demands when appropriate, unless prohibited by law or court order. And if we believe a request is overly broad, we seek to narrow it -- like when we persuaded a court to drastically limit a U.S. government request for two months' of user search queries," he said via email.

Gaither noted that Google has insisted on government agencies getting an ECPA search warrant based on probable cause for access to stored contents of Gmail and other Google services.

The type of information that Google provides varies quite a bit, Gaither he said. For example, a valid ECPA subpoena for a Gmail address could compel Google to disclose the name listed when creating the account, and the IP address from which the user created the account and signed in and signed out, along with all relevant dates and times, Gaither said.

Similarly, a valid ECPA court order could compel Google to disclose the IP address associated with a particular email sent from that account or used to change the account password, along with the non-content portion of email heads such as the "from," "to" and "date" fields, he noted. "A valid ECPA warrant could compel us to disclose stored content such as the contents of a Gmail account," he said.

Greg Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that the latest transparency report shows that Google's refusal to comply with law enforcement demands has gone up in the last two years -- even as the number of demands for data nearly doubled.

A "hat tip to Google for releasing this important information," Nojeim said. "This shows not only that law enforcement demands are skyrocketing, but that [the] proportion of those demands that are inappropriate may also be increasing. The data contribute to an already compelling case for Congress to take up ECPA reform to protect user privacy."


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