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U.S. appetite for Internet user data not unique

Jaikumar Vijayan | Sept. 2, 2013
Analysis of transparency reports from Google, Microsoft, Skype show other countries equally — or more — demanding.

For all the privacy concerns raised by Edward Snowden's leaks about government data collection activities, the U.S. is not alone or even always the most demanding when it comes to law enforcement requests for customer data from Internet service providers.

A whitepaper released by Washington-based law firm Hogan Lovells this week shows that law enforcement agencies in several other countries in Europe and elsewhere have equally, if not even more, voracious appetites for such data.

The conclusions in the whitepaper are based on a review of all the transparency reports released by Google, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn and Skype that detail all requests for customer data made by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In the U.S, at least, requests for the data are typically made in connection with ongoing criminal and other investigations by law enforcement.

Transparency reports do not document national security-related requests for data by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies. Google has been releasing the data for the past three years, Twitter and LinkedIn have done so for the past 18 months while Skype and Microsoft have been at it for one year.

Christopher Wolf, author of the whitepaper and director of the privacy and information management practice at Hogan Lovells, said the data shows that, when adjusted for population size and numbers of Internet users, U.S. demands for customer data are not all that extraordinary.

In fact, in 2012, the rate at which European governments sought access to personal data from major service providers increased faster than the rate of U.S. government requests, Wolf noted.

"Many in Europe right now are under the impression that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have a greater appetite for data and access more data than anyone else in the world," Wolf said. But with respect to law enforcement requests at least, the U.S. is at or below the levels in many other countries, he said.

Google's transparency reports, for instance, show that U.S law enforcement agencies made an average of 51.3 requests per 1 million Internet users between 2010 and 2012. During the same period, law enforcement in Hong Kong made an average of 59.05 requests per million users, the United Kingdom had 49.9 requests and France had 50.24 requests.

Even Brazil, which has been vocal in its criticism of U.S. government access to Internet data, had an average of 35.87 requests between 2010 and 2012.

The data also showed that Microsoft received significantly more requests for data from other governments than it did from the U.S. Because of Microsoft's broader global footprint and the fact that it has been around for longer than Google, foreign governments appear to be more used to making information requests from the company, the Hogan Lovells paper noted.


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