Google releases transparency report, adds legal detail

January 23, 2013

Google released its latest numbers on government requests, offering more information on just how the United States and countries are asking the technology giant for data.


(MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

According to figures published Wednesday on Google’s main blog, 68 percent of requests for data from all levels of government in the United States are subpoenas asking for information on users’ identities, issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. These orders, the company said, usually do not involve judges.

Around one-fifth — 22 percent — of the requests come under search warrants, which require judges to find probable cause for governments to obtain the data. The remaining 10 percent of requests, the company said, were issued “by judges or other processes that are difficult to categorize.”

Congress is currently looking into revising the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, including changes that would require law enforcement to obtain warrants issued by judges to access information such as e-mail. House Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has said he will work with Senate chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to update the 1986 bill to better reflect current technologies. Leahy’s committee passed proposed updates to the bill last November; Leahy said last week that he will continue pushing to update the bill.

Public interest groups were quick to point to Google’s report as evidence that the ECPA needs to updated, and quickly.

“Congress needs to act immediately to reform ECPA—to ensure that the Fourth Amendment protects our private communications in the cloud, while still allowing law enforcement to obtain basic subscriber information with a subpoena,” said TechFreedom president Berin Szoka. He also said that while companies such as Google may be able to argue against requests they don’t think are justified, smaller companies need clear, legal standards to deal with requests.

This year, Google received 21,389 requests for information regarding 33,634 users from July 2012 through December 2012. The number of requests has grown as Google’s services have expanded, up around 70 percent from the same period in 2009.

Google did not include requests for content removal in its latest report, saying that it will be releasing those figures in a separate report.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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