Google Sees Government Requests for User Data Growing

Google's Transparency Report shows that the United States remains ahead of other countries in requesting user data from the tech giant.

Google, data privacy

The United States government and law enforcement agencies continue to lead their counterparts in other countries in requesting user data from Google.

The company's latest Transparency Report shows that between July and December 2015, Google received a total of 12,523 requests for user data from U.S. authorities. The data involved a total of 27,157 user accounts. Google responded with at least some of the requested data in 79 percent of the cases.

The number of requests for user data from U.S. authorities in the second half of 2015 was about 40 percent higher than the 7,491 requests from Germany, the second highest requesting country, during the same period.

In all, Google and YouTube received more than 40,600 requests for data from governments around the world, involving more than 81,300 user accounts in the second half of 2015. Google responded with at least some data to 64 percent of the requests overall.

Google officials said its Transparency Report is designed to give insight into surveillance laws and practices by governments around the world. Following Edward Snowden's 2013 leaks about the U.S. government's data-collection practices, Google and numerous other companies have strived to make as much information as possible available to the public, about the requests they receive from governments compelling disclosure of specific user data. The requests have typically been in connection with criminal and national security-related investigations.

In the United States, for instance, a lot of the user data requests that companies like Google have received from the government have been in the form of National Security Letters (NSLs) compelling disclosure of details such as a user's name, address, length of service and billing records. The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is another legal instrument that the government has frequently used to extract user data from Internet and telecommunication companies under the aegis of national security.

By providing as much detail as they legally can about such requests, Google and other technology companies are trying to allay concerns about the security of user data in their control. Google and others have insisted that they only provide user data in a manner fully consistent with their obligations under law.

Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, Apple and others produce similar reports.

The numbers in Google's latest Transparency Report show that government requests for user data are continuing to grow. The 40,677 requests made by governments between July and December 2015 represented a 15 percent increase from the 35,365 requests in the first half of the year and a more than 33 percent increase from the second half of 2014. The percentage of requests worldwide in which Google provided at least some data, however, has remained somewhat steady at around 63 percent for sometime now.

The report also shows that Google has tended to provide information to more requests from certain countries than in others. In the United States, for example, Google provided at least some data in 79 percent of cases where it received a request for data. It had a similarly high response rate of more than 70 percent in the United Kingdom, Australia and Belgium.

However, the proportion of requests to which it provided at least some data to the government was much lower in certain other countries. In France, for example, Google provided data in only 59 percent of the requests it received; in Canada the number was 53 percent; and in Switzerland the percentage was even lower, at 13 percent. Of the 257 requests for user data that Google received in Russia, the company provided at least some data in just 7 percent of the cases.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.