Google Explains Its Policies on Data Privacy Day

Google commemorates the day by giving more details on how it reacts if a government seeks user data.

Google used Jan. 28—the date designated as worldwide Data Privacy Day—as the day to give more details about how it reacts if a government asks Goggle to give up information on its users.

Google described the steps in a post by David Drummond, the company's senior vice president and chief legal officer, on the Google Official Blog, as part of its commemoration of Data Privacy Day.

"If it's like most other days, Google—like many companies that provide online services to users—will receive dozens of letters, faxes and emails from government agencies and courts around the world requesting access to our users' private account information," wrote Drummond. "Typically, this happens in connection with government investigations."

But in response, Google has duties to also protect the privacy and freedoms of its users, he wrote, which requires a careful balance. "It's important for law-enforcement agencies to pursue illegal activity and keep the public safe," he wrote. "We're a law-abiding company, and we don't want our services to be used in harmful ways. But it's just as important that laws protect you against overly broad requests for your personal information. "

To balance the needs of government investigators with the personal rights of users, Google follows a "longstanding strict process for handling these kinds of requests," wrote Drummond. "When government agencies ask for our users' personal information—like what you provide when you sign up for a Google Account, or the contents of an email—our team does several things."

The steps taken by Google, according to Drummond, include the following:

  • Carefully scrutinize the request to ensure that it satisfies the law and Google's policies. For Google to even begin considering the request, "it generally must be made in writing, signed by an authorized official of the requesting agency and issued under an appropriate law," he wrote.
  • Evaluate the scope of the request to ensure its fairness and appropriateness. "If it's overly broad, we may refuse to provide the information or seek to narrow the request," Drummond wrote. "We do this frequently."
  • Notify users when such a request is made, "when appropriate, so that they can contact the entity requesting it or consult a lawyer," wrote Drummond. "Sometimes we can't, either because we're legally prohibited (in which case we sometimes seek to lift gag orders or unseal search warrants) or we don't have their verified contact information."
  • Require government agencies to serve Google with a search warrant when conducting criminal investigations. That way, the courts must rule to compel Google "to provide a user's search query information and private content stored in a Google Account—such as Gmail messages, documents, photos and YouTube videos," rather than handing it over without good reason, wrote Drummond. "We believe a warrant is required by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and overrides conflicting provisions in [U.S. Electronic Communications Privacy Act]."

Google recently made improvements to its biannual Transparency Reports, which share details about how many government inquiries have been made each year involving user data. Google has been compiling and releasing the reports since 2010 to keep the process transparent for users of its services so they can have insights into what is done with the data stored by Google.

The latest biannual report, which was issued Jan. 23, now includes a breakdown detailing what legal procedures U.S. government agencies took to seek the information, whether it is through subpoenas, search warrants or court orders. Previous reports did not include those specific details.

"We're proud of our approach, and we believe it's the right way to make sure governments can pursue legitimate investigations while we do our best to protect your privacy and security," wrote Drummond.

Since 2009, Google has seen a more than 70 percent increase in requests from governments worldwide for information about its users and their possible criminal activities, according to the latest biannual Transparency Report on such requests.

For the six-month period ending Dec. 31, 2012, Google received 21,389 government requests for information about 33,634 users, including 8,438 requests involving 14,791 users by the U.S. government.

In the United States, the number of government requests is up since the last Transparency Report that detailed January through June of 2012. In that report, there were 7,969 total requests involving 16,281 users.