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Google Report Shows How Gov't Gets Your Data

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

You're not paranoid: The government is watching you, or at least has reason to be curious about your Google and YouTube activity. And thanks to the newly released Google Transparency Report, we know how hard cops and other agents are working to keep tabs on us.

This isn't the first time Google has released information on the requests it receives from government agencies and courts worldwide. Starting in 2010 it has released more and more information on user data requests.

The latest report is the most comprehensive to date.

Google Data Requests

Not only does Google's Transparency Report include data on the number of requests by country, it also provides insight on the legal mechanisms used to get your data, and what types of data the government is after.

The good news is that Google requires law enforcement agencies to abide by legal requirements when making requests. (From July to December 2012, U.S. law enforcement agencies made 8,438 requests, according to Google's data -- an average of 46 per day.)

The bad news for Internet criminals and others targeted by the government: Google gave up at least some of your data in 88% of all cases.

When a request for data comes in, Google evaluates it to ensure legal compliance. In the United States, that means the request is in the form of a subpoena, court order, or a warrant.

That doesn't mean Google can protect your information indefinitely. Disclosure in some cases is required by law. The standards differ depending on what legal process the government uses:

  • Subpoena. A subpoena is a request for information related to a legal proceeding, most often a court case. If police have a legitimate subpoena, then Google must provide the data requested. This could include a user's registration information such as name, birth date, and associated email addresses and phone numbers. They also have to disclose the times and IP addresses associated with logins.

  • Court Order. While a subpoena is a kind of court order, there are other court orders that fall outside the scope of a subpoena. Court orders received by Google often seek the release of non-content information that goes beyond registration. That may include the headings of email messages, the upload IP addresses for YouTube videos and blog posts, or forwarding numbers associated with Google Voice.

  • Warrant. To obtain a warrant, police must prove to a judge that there is probable cause that the requested search will provide information about criminal activity. When police present a warrant in conjunction with a search request, Google will provide whatever information is requested, including the content of emails, videos, blog posts, text messages, or voicemails that are stored on Google's databases.

But just because police have a warrant doesn't mean they can get any and all info they want. Warrants, subpoenas and court orders must stay within the confines of the law.

In general, a request must be narrowly written to the information police are seeking. That means the request will often be very specific -- limited to a certain time period, recipient, or topic.

Google says it's on the lookout for otherwise legitimate requests that ask for too much information. They noted that overbroad demands may be narrowed at Google's request.

Posting these policies is part of Google's push for tougher privacy laws from the federal government, according to NPR. If nothing else, the government knows that we're watching them too.

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