Google issued a new update to its semi-annual Transparency Report this morning that, once again, revealed the number of government requests for user data to be on the rise. Between July and December of last year, governments asked Google to turn over user information 21,389 times — an increase of 70 percent since 2009.
What this means in practice is that authorities in the United States and other countries are regularly demanding that Google hand over the keys to user accounts like Gmail or YouTube. In many cases, the government may have a legitimate reason to ask for such information, such as solving a crime or stopping a spying operation.
Other times, though, governments may simply be fishing for data in a way that flouts citizens’ right to privacy. Such fishing expeditions, unfortunately, are relatively easy in the U.S. thanks to the sprawl of so-called administrative subpoenas — a legal tool that lets agencies demand data without first proving to a judge that they have a right to get it. Google’s new stats, which for the first time break out the procedures U.S. governments used to gain information, show that 68 percent of all requests came by way of such subpoenas while only 22 precent came by way of search warrants. Here’s Google’s graphic:
The new stats not only highlight the nature of the modern surveillance society but also strengthen the case for updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that sets out rules for how governments can collect personal information. Influential Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, this week declared that reforming ECPA for the age of cloud computing is one of his top priorities.
So Facebook, where’s your report?
In releasing its findings, Google called on other companies and governments to “join us in this effort by releasing similar kinds of data.” Google has made similar appeals in the past but, so far, the only company to offer a report of its own is Twitter which last year published its first Transparency Report to coincide with Independence Day.
Facebook, however, has been conspicuously silent about government demands for data. In recent years, the social network has become a honeypot for federal agencies and other law enforcement powers that want to tap into the vast troves of information Facebook holds about users and their friends. While the government snooping is not Facebook’s fault (the company, after all, must comply with the law), it does raise the question of whether the company should join Google and Twitter in taking a more stance on raising civil liberties issues.
In response to a question about whether Facebook will produce a Transparency Report of its own, a spokesman provided the following statement:
We do not have any immediate plans to release a report, however, we have been working diligently on meaningful transparency such as the Law Enforcement Guidelines in the Help Center and our work with the Digital Due Process coalition to ensure the privacy of our users. While we will continue to evaluate our plans in this area, we devote our primary efforts to auditing every request we receive to ensure the strictest compliance with law. You can find out more here - http://on.fb.me/LEGuidelines