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US Gov't Demands For Google Data Up 37% Over the Last Year 77

Posted by timothy
from the willie-sutton's-modern-corollary dept.
Sparrowvsrevolution writes "Governments are sticking their noses into Google's servers more than ever before. In the second half of 2011, Google received 6,321 requests that it hand over its users' private data to U.S. government agencies including law enforcement, and complied at least partially with those requests in 93% of cases, according to the latest update to the company's bi-annual Transparency Report. That's up from 5,950 requests in the first half of 2011, and marks a 37% increase in the number of requests over the same period the year before. Compared with the second half of 2009, the first time Google released the government request numbers, the latest figures represent a 76% spike. Data demands from foreign governments have increased even more quickly than those from the U.S., up to 11,936 in the second half of 2011 compared with 9,600 in the same period the year before, though Google was much less likely to comply with those non-U.S. government requests."
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US Gov't Demands For Google Data Up 37% Over the Last Year

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 18, 2012 @08:18AM (#40358031)

    What's wrong with out country that we need to "request" to spy on 20,000-some-odd individuals?

  • by Gonoff (88518) on Monday June 18, 2012 @08:37AM (#40358119)

    Some of the best officers I remember, or have heard of very often asked for rather than directly ordered things. It was more a case of "Please take your unit up there and do X." Afterwards there was "thank you".
    If things got "stressful" the please and thank yous ceased but they returned as soon as normal communication volumes and speeds returned."

    They may have included all the request words but they were orders none the less. They were in a position of power and politeness is a good way of ensuring co-operation. There are plenty lesser powers who feel they have to order everything. As they climb up society (or the ranks) they seem to become nicer.

    Just because they are called "requests" does not mean that you have much leeway whether it is a captain telling people to head into danger or a suited spook asking for information that the owners might object to. You just have to do it.

  • by sohmc (595388) on Monday June 18, 2012 @08:42AM (#40358145) Journal

    Government cannot compel a particular response without a warrant or court order: Google is not obligated to respond to the a request that is not accompanied by a warrant or court order in any particular way. Google may CHOOSE to comply with a request because there is nothing inappropriate about a business deciding to comply with a lawful request from a government agency.

    If I had the mod points, I'd mod you up. This is an important distinction.

    My guess is that Google wants to keep the feds on their good side. Google is getting rather large and wants to make sure that the Feds remember that Google helps them "catch terrorists". Unlike the populous, the federal government has long memories and can hold grudges for long periods of time.

    Fortunately, if you don't like Google's policy, you can choose not to use it.

    This is easier said than done. Google, like Facebook, has become tightly integrated with our society, so much so that it's weird when I see product placements for other search engines on shows and movies. I can't remember the show but I remember seeing a product placement for Yahoo search. I remember saying out loud, "Who still uses Yahoo?"

    I would say it's easier to simply not register an account on Google. However, they may still know who you are based on your browser fingerprint [eff.org].

  • by daveschroeder (516195) * on Monday June 18, 2012 @08:42AM (#40358149)

    As I said in another comment [slashdot.org]:

    I know some will say that not complying with such requests might have "consequences", the implication being that it really is a demand with which Google "must" comply; of course, this is an assertion with no proof, designed to deflect attention from the fact that it is in no way illegal or unconstitutional for the US government to make such requests. If you have a problem with a business responding to such a request, then your problem is with that business, not the government. The irony is that Google is telling you that it's doing this, while other businesses don't -- and they're under no obligation to do so, either.

    If you were talking about a business in Russia, China, or Iran, you might have a point.

  • "76% spike" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by John Hasler (414242) on Monday June 18, 2012 @08:50AM (#40358183) Homepage

    No, a 76% increase. "Spike" implies that it went up quickly and then immediately came back down, forming a spike on a graph. Thus only in the unlikely event that it comes back down next year can you legitimately call it a spike. Yes, I'm being picky.

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Monday June 18, 2012 @09:22AM (#40358463)
    It's clever, because it means you don't have to confront the truth, which is that there is nothing wrong with a government in a free society asking a business for help, and nothing wrong with a business deciding to provide that help. It's not illegal, and doesn't run afoul of the Constitution.

    You are ignoring the very real expectation that people have that their email will enjoy the same privacy as their postal mail and their phone conversations. Google does not make its policy of complying with US government requests clear to its users (it is an ambiguous statement buried in the privacy policy), and the US government has not been forthcoming about its cozy relationship with Internet companies. People have every reason to think that a court order would be required before the government can receive their information from Google, because that is how things work with their telephone conversations.

    This is a legal loophole that should be closed, not defended. The Stored Communications Privacy Act was written before the Internet became a widely used medium of communication. At the time, most computer users understood how emailed worked and understood that their email was being sent in the clear through another person's computer system, and they did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. That is not true today; the majority of computer users today have no idea how email works, they think of it as a fancy version of postal mail, and they have no understanding of the privacy implications of sending plaintext email (or that there is even an alternative). The logic behind the SCPA is twenty years out of date.

    Yes, there is a problem with the government asking businesses for "help," when the purpose in doing so is to avoid legal and constitutional requirements. If Google did not comply with these sorts of requests, the government would have to either violate the law or turn to the court system to get wiretap orders and so forth. That is how the system is supposed to work: your communications are supposed to be private except when a warrant is issued, and warrants are not supposed to be issued unless probable cause can be shown. This friendly, "Hey Google, you think you could give us all the information you have about Joe Schmoe," system is not the sort of system we are supposed to have in this country.

    Really, the idea that Google was pressured by the government is not that far-fetched, given the government's behavior in the past, and it is optimistic for Google -- the company that claims it will "do no evil." Sure, evidence is lacking, which is a result of the secrecy that surrounds police operations. We really do not know how these requests are being made. Is Google being pressured? Did Google propose the idea of this sort of relationship to the government? Does Google use its cooperation as a bargaining chip when it wants to build a new data center or lay some new fiber?

    This is a matter of preserving the principles upon which the US was founded. The government is not supposed to be all-powerful, and the panopticon is not supposed to exist here. Our privacy is supposed to be violated only after a careful legal procedure, only after a judge is convinced of a legitimate investigative need.

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Monday June 18, 2012 @09:25AM (#40358475)
    Hm...so we have probable cause...and that's why we do not bother getting a court order. Interesting approach to the constitution...
  • by daveschroeder (516195) * on Monday June 18, 2012 @09:45AM (#40358613)

    Great reply — one of the increasingly few thoughtful responses I get on slashdot these days.

    To address your points, there are many exceptions to the warrant requirement. For example, the metadata or "envelope" of communications has generally been considered by the courts to be exempt from warrant requirements.

    In the literal sense of an envelope, a warrant is not required for government to look at the outside of an envelope (e.g., addresses written on the envelope, or its size and shape or other external characteristics).

    In the case of phone conversations, Smith v. Maryland (1979) said that things like the list of phone calls received, or numbers called, or for how long, were part of phone company billing records and a warrant was not required.

    In the context of the internet, a warrant is not required for communications metadata — IP addresses, DNS names, To: and From: addresses on an email message, and similar.

    It is the CONTENT of communications that requires a warrant. The words written in a letter; the words spoken on a phone call; the words contained in an email message or VoIP call.

    So, if these kind of non-content requests don't require a warrant, and have longstanding analogues in the non-digital realm upheld by the Supreme Court, what is wrong with making these requests in the digital realm?

    Some might say that a much more complete picture of a person can be constructed from increasing activities in the digital realm, even without the benefit of the content of communications. Certainly I would agree. Does that automatically make it illegal, immoral, or wrong? It's definitely not illegal or unconstitutional (it isn't illegal until a law says it is, and it isn't unconstitutional unless a court of competent jurisdiction says so; and these examples above are explicitly held as constitutional), so is it immoral or wrong? If the government has legitimate interests here, and legitimate charges to execute the law, the real question is just how far that authority goes.

    It would be ridiculous to assert that any contact with business by government in a free society be accompanied by force of law. It would be similarly ridiculous to allow for the provision of any and all information the government asked for without a warrant. So the balance is clearly somewhere between these two extremes. Currently the balance is a result of the fact that there are numerous and longstanding (i.e., not "post 9/11) exemptions to the requirement for a warrant for written (mail), voice (telephone), and digital (internet) communications.

    Security and liberty are not at two ends of a zero-sum sliding scale. We can and should have a good measure of both.

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Monday June 18, 2012 @10:17AM (#40358901)

    So, if these kind of non-content requests don't require a warrant, and have longstanding analogues in the non-digital realm upheld by the Supreme Court, what is wrong with making these requests in the digital realm?

    The fact that the analogues are not quite identical. Sure, without a warrant the government can look at an envelope while a letter is in transit; the problem here is that the emails are not being inspected while they are in transit, but rather when they are stored on a server. Postal mail is not copied and saved by each courier that delivers it; email is. You can be reasonably certain that once a postal letter is delivered, nobody will get the chance to inspect or make a copy of the envelope; yet even after receiving an email, the message may be stored on one or more servers for indefinite periods of time, during which the server operator may have a chance to comply with such requests.

    These systems are also automated and integrated to a degree that far exceeds previous systems. I could visit a website that appears to have nothing to do with Google, but without my knowledge Google could have recorded that visit. It would be as if each store you shopped at had dozens of security cameras, which were operated by dozens of different entities -- and the police could potentially ask any one of those entities to play back the footage. One website's operators may not be willing to comply with a police request and might demand a court order; the police could simply go to some other entity and receive the same records. It is reasonable to expect Slashdot's readership to be cognizant of this sort of thing; it is unreasonable to expect the majority of Americans, who have little understanding of computers, to be equally informed.

    It would be ridiculous to assert that any contact with business by government in a free society be accompanied by force of law

    Sure, but we are not talking about any old contact, we are talking about contact that is specifically related to law enforcement activities. We need to be careful when it comes to law enforcement power; too little power would be detrimental to public safety, but too much invites various abuses and tyranny. I have noticed a pattern, and I do not think I am the only one, where increases in police power are followed up with increases in the number of laws and the number of ways people can become criminals. Put another way, the trend is for the police to be pushed to their maximum capacity to enforce the law, regardless of what that capacity is.

    Currently the balance is a result of the fact that there are numerous and longstanding (i.e., not "post 9/11) exemptions to the requirement for a warrant for written (mail), voice (telephone), and digital (internet) communications.

    I would say that as early as the 1970s, the police were given too much power at the expense of our civil rights and liberties. People generally point to 9/11 as a turning point; they ignore other turning points, like CALEA (which mandates that wiretapping capabilities be built into our phone system, among other things), the Comprehensive Crime Control Act (which allows the police to recycle seized assets into their own budgets), and the Controlled Substances Act (which gives the Attorney General's office the power to declare drugs illegal without any democratic process). Each of these laws has been detrimental to our civil rights, and in each case the power of the police was increased, then followed up with an increase in the number of reasons the police can have to arrest people (the most obvious case of the this is the CSA, which has resulted in the list of illegal drugs growing and never shrinking -- and drug cases are one of the cited reasons for the requests being made to Google).

    Security and liberty are not at two ends of a zero-sum sliding scale

    I do not think it is zero-sum. As an extreme example, the citizens of

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Monday June 18, 2012 @10:21AM (#40358935)
    To protect our rights from police abuses. We require police to get a warrant from the courts to ensure that there is no single branch of government that can unilaterally violate your privacy or freedom. We do not want the police running around making their own decisions; the judge that signs a warrant is supposed to be a check against an out-of-control police force.

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