Google Reports Government Demands for User Data at All Time High

Google calls on Congress to consider revising current communication laws to maintain user privacy.

Cyber-Privacy Legislation

U.S. government requests for user data held by Google reached an all time high in the first half of this year, Google's latest Transparency Report, released Thursday, showed.

Between January and June this year, the U.S. government put in 16,823 requests with Google for user data belonging to 33,709 accounts. That is the most data the U.S. government has ever requested from Google in any prior six-month period since the company started publishing its Transparency Report in 2010.  Google produced at least some of the requested data 81 percent of the time.

In all, governments worldwide made a total of 48,941 requests for data associated with 83,345 Google user accounts.

The numbers pertain to requests made by governments and law enforcement agencies via warrants, subpoenas and other court orders, for data belonging to users under criminal investigation or suspected of being a threat to national security interests.

In the United States, many of the requests that Google gets for user data are made under the aegis of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Many technology and communications companies are subject to the same disclosure requirements.

Google's Transparency Report, which it releases on a six-monthly basis, also includes the number of requests it receives from governments to remove content from its online properties for alleged reasons like national security, defamation, privacy and obscenity.

As has been the case from the time Google first started publishing its Transparency Report, the U.S. government easily topped the list of entities making requests for such user data in the latest report as well.

Germany made the second highest number of requests with 7,780 of them while France placed third with 5,661. Other countries that made a high number of requests for user data in the first half of 2017 were India with over 3,840 and the United Kingdom at around 3,500.

Google's response rate to these requests in other countries however, generally tended to be substantially smaller compared to its response rate with the U.S. government. For instance, it provided at least some of the data requested by the Indian government just 54 percent of the time and about 56 percent of the time to Germany.

In releasing the newly updated Transparency Report Sept. 28 Google's director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Selgado reiterated the company's previous calls for reform of U.S. government laws pertaining to such data collection.

"We are publishing the latest update to our Transparency Report as the U.S. Congress embarks upon an important debate concerning the nature and scope of key FISA provisions," Selgado said in a blog.

Google understands the government's need to collect such data for national security and law enforcement purposes, he said. However, Congress needs to enact reforms to ensure that user privacy rights are not comprised while protecting national security, Selgado said.

U.S. communication laws such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) need to be updated to accommodate the changes that have resulted from technological advances, he said.

"Government access laws are due for a fundamental realignment and update in light of the proliferation of technology," and the changed expectations of privacy that users have in their communications, said Selgado.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.