Government online surveillance on rise in murky legal environment

U.S. government entities made the most number of requests for user data in the first half of this year

Google reported Tuesday that government surveillance based on requests for user data is rising steadily worldwide, with the U.S. leading the pack in a murky legal environment.

Google, which releases its Transparency Report on governments twice a year, says that in the first half of this year it received 20,938 inquiries from government entities globally, compared to 12,539 in the second half of 2009, which is when the search engine started releasing the information. The 2012 requests were for information about 34,614 user accounts.

"This is the sixth time we've released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise," Dorothy Chou, Google's senior policy analyst, said in the company's blog.

Governments increasingly turning to the Web for information reflects how a growing number of people are moving data online, said Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy for the Center for Democracy & Technology. "Our lives are moving online and governments realize that the service providers that we depend upon hold this treasure trove of information."

While data requests have risen steadily over the last three years, the number of government requests to remove content has remained largely flat until the most recent report, which saw the number spike to 1,791 from 1,048 in the second half of last year.

Many of the takedown requests involved defaming public officials, privacy violations against individuals, copyright infringement and extremist content, such neo-Nazi posts in Germany. Google, which has its own guidelines for content removal, did not honor all requests. 

For example, Google refused to honor five requests and one court order in the U.S. to remove seven YouTube videos for criticizing local and state government agencies, law enforcement or public officials.

[In depth: The security laws, regulations and guidelines directory]

The company also received U.S. court orders to remove 641 search results linking to websites allegedly defaming organizations and individuals. Google removed roughly a third of the results. Overall, the number of content removal requests in the U.S. rose by 46% from the last half of 2011. 

U.S. government entities made the most number of requests for user data in the first half of this year with 7,969. Google honored 90% of the requests. Other countries in the top five were India, Brazil, France and Germany, respectively.

Requests for user information in the U.S. are justifiable in criminal investigations where law enforcement obtains a court warrant, Dempsey argues. Where the CDT sees potential privacy violations is when prosecutors issue subpoenas for personal information, such as the content of emails. Such data should require a warrant

Currently, prosecutors can get email content, private digital documents and other user information with only a subpoena. However, federal appellate court rulings have said warrants are needed for some digital content, making where the Constitution draws the line murky, Dempsey said. Congress is trying to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, enacted more than 25 years ago, but has yet to reach agreement.

When it comes to failing to strengthen privacy laws related to government access, the U.S. is not alone. Other Western countries have laws that are equally as weak, if not weaker, Dempsey said.

"Worldwide, the standards are not very strong," he said. "And worldwide, there's this debate over what should be the checks and balances here." 

In the meantime, Google and other technology and telecommunication companies are becoming the gatekeepers for user data. Over the last year, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Twitter are among the companies that have started publishing their own statistics on government requests.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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