What happens if the local police, the FBI or any government agency asks Google for information about your Gmail or YouTube account? Good question and one Google is trying to address with a new FAQ posted to its corporate blog. It also added a new page to its “transparency report” on how it deals with user data.
The post, by Dave Drummond SVP and chief legal officer, is fairly straightforward. It says the company evaluates any request to make sure it complies with its own guidelines and is not overly broad. Typically requests must come in writing and notify customers when possible if such requests are made.
And, in criminal investigations, Google requires a search warrant before providing a user’s search history and any private information stored in his or her Google account — that includes Gmail messages, documents, photos and YouTube videos. (This requirement is remarkable because federal law lets authorities get this information without a warrant in many situations; as Wired reports, the warrant request appears to be Google standing up to the government).
Google said it is also pushing the government to update information privacy laws for the internet age and is seen as a powerful lobbying force in Washington D.C. Last year, Google helped lead the charge by many tech companies to derail the proposed Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) legislation that was ostensibly geared to stop online trafficking in copyrighted materials but was also seen as an attempt to put limits on the internet and curb free speech. Now it’ s reportedly working to overhaul the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
This statement by Google is no small matter in an era of warrantless searches and data collection on private citizens for legal and commercial reasons. One legal expert said Google is being more upfront than many companies with its FAQ. Chris Hoofnagle, director of Information Privacy Programs at Berkeley Center for Law & Technology told National Public Radio that most companies keep mum on civil and criminal requests for user information.
“Google’s going out on a limb, here. Because, by making these statements, they might be creating customer expectations, that certain process will be followed, when their data is revealed to law enforcement,” Hoofnagle told NPR.