Governments world-wide want to get their hands on Google’s immense and valuable user data for a variety of purposes.
Google started tracking the a lot of these requests in 2010 and has released the reports every six months. This week, with the search engine giant’s sixth transparency report, it’s clear to see that these requests are increasing.
Google has an official blog post summarizing the report, or go directly to the user data requests section of the full transparency report. You might also be interested in Google’s government removal requests section of the report, but the real concern is the request of personal information.
Just how many requests are they getting? Requests for data from the government has shown a steady increase, from 12,539 when Google began reporting them in 2010 to 20,938 in this week’s report. The number itself doesn’t quite tell the full story, because “one request” can ask for multiple pieces of information. Those 20,938 requests “were for information from about 34,614 accounts,” according to Google.
The trend from governments to request removal of material from Google, on the other hand, looks a little more complicated. You can see in the above link that it “was largely flat from 2009 to 2011.” It jumped largely in this reporting period. The chart shows 1,048 removal requests for the six-month period ending in December 2011. From January through June 2012, “there were 1,791 requests from various government officials around the world to remove 17,746 pieces of content.”
Google’s transparency report includes some nice interactive elements. For example, the table that lists removal requests can be sorted by country, number of requests, percentage of compliance, and more. Not too surprisingly, the United States heads the list for number of court-ordered requests for removal, as well as items requested to be removed – but surprisingly, the search engine complied with less than half of these court-ordered requests and Google’s compliance was much higher for certain other countries.
This begs the question, why would Google not comply with a content removal request? Google explained that “Some requests may not be specific enough for us to know what the government wanted us to remove and others involve allegations of defamation through informal letters from government agencies, rather than court orders.” Also, the search engine noted in its FAQ that they have ocassionally received falsified court orders, “and if we determine that a court order is false, we will not comply with it.”
Even user data requests are increasing and may be more worrisome. All countries seem to be showing an up trend here, with the United States leading the pack.
So if you have a Gmail or other Google account, should you be concerned? Well, it depends on whether you’ve committed a crime, or have a close association to someone who has. According to Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security, “The government can’t just wander through your emails just because they’d like to know what you’re thinking or doing.” As he explained to the Associated Press, though, “If the government is investigating a crime, it has a lot of authority to review people’s emails.” The trend is very clear: governments want and are receiving more information about you and may be beginning to rein in some of the free-flowing data online. Still, given the sheer size and rapid growth of the Internet, there’s no need to get paranoid just yet.