Google published a ninth update to its semi-annual Transparency Report on Thursday and, for once, there’s a flicker of good news for those concerned about the growth of government surveillance. Unlike previous updates, which showed rapid jumps in requests, the new update shows that the number of Google accounts subject to government demands for users’ identities held steady at about 42,000 requests compared to a previous 6-month period.
Civil libertarians are hardly going to be turning cartwheels over those numbers since, as Google points out in a blog post, the overall number of law enforcement demands has risen an alarming 120 percent in the last four years. But the fact that the number of requests has plateaued, even as the number of Google users grows, suggests that law enforcement agencies might becoming less cavalier about demanding companies provide the identify of their users.
Google’s latest transparency report numbers cover July to December 2013, a period that coincides with a series of bombshell disclosures about government surveillance by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The disclosures, which revealed how the NSA squeezes tech companies to share information about their users, triggered a national debate over surveillance and also led to a flurry of legal action from technology and telephone companies.
Other numbers from Google’s latest report shows that 18,254 of the 42,648 user accounts subject to law enforcement requests belonged to users located in the United States. The accounts represent subscriber services like Gmail or Youtube. U.S. users were by far subjected to the highest number of requests, followed by India, France, Germany and the U.K (here’s the full list).
Here’s a graph that shows the overall trend in government requests for user data:
The new figures also show that, while the number of user accounts subject to identity demands is almost unchanged (42,500 in the first half of 2013 versus 42,648 in the second), the overall number of demands rose slightly from 25,879 to 27,477.
The new update is just one part of Google’s Transparency Report initiative, whichalso separate updates for government demands to remove content from Google and for copyright takedowns. Recently, other big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have begun to follow Google’s example of publishing these reports.
Google’s reports also break out data for the different types of law enforcement requests the company receives, such as subpoenas, search warrants and national security letters. Recent, Google and other tech companies also obtained the right to publish the number of secret NSA letters they receive.