Government Requests for Google User Data Rise Steadily

While government requests for Google's user data are up, the proportion of requests for which the company has provided information remains nearly the same.

Government requests for Google users' data

As one of the largest Internet companies, Google receives more requests for user data from governments and law enforcement agencies around the world than perhaps any other service provider.

And, as it has since the company first began releasing details on such requests, government demands for user data have kept increasing steadily.

Google's latest transparency report, released this week, shows the company received a total of 44,943 government requests for information covering 76,713 user accounts in the first half of this year. That represented a nearly 10.5 percent increase in information demands compared to the prior six-month period and a 27 percent increase over the six-month period before that.

The proportion of requests to which Google provided user information, however, has remained unchanged at around 64 percent since the second half of 2015, according to the company.

Once again, the U.S. government and law enforcement agencies led all others in asking Google for customer information. The 14,168 information requests that Google received from the U.S. government dwarfed the 8,788 requests the company received from Germany, the country with the second highest number of requests. The requests in the United States included those made under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), National Security Letters (NSL) from the FBI and via warrants and court orders in connection with criminal investigations.

Other countries with a relatively high number of requests were France, the United Kingdom, India and Australia.

Google started publishing its transparency report a few years ago largely in response to the widespread privacy and civil rights concerns raised by Edward Snowden's leaks about the surveillance practices of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The leaks spawned fears, especially overseas, about the U.S. government's access to customer data stored in the cloud by Google and other U.S. service providers. The concerns prompted some businesses in Europe and elsewhere to abandon U.S. cloud service providers and more recently led to a substantial revamp of EU regulations governing data transfers between the European Union and the United States.

Such concerns received a fresh airing recently with news that Yahoo developed a system in 2015 that allowed it to search through the content of all Yahoo email accounts for information requested by the U.S. government.

As with other major Internet companies, Google has insisted that it has not voluntarily offered any customer data to the government and has only provided it when the company was legally obligated to do so under national security and other statutes. Google has asked the U.S. government for sometime now to be allowed to release even more information than it is currently permitted legally so business customers and consumers in general know exactly what information the company provides, how it does so and under what circumstances.

Other major companies have similar transparency reports. Microsoft for instance releases a biannual report that offers details on the information requests it receives from governments. The company's last report, released Sept. 26, shows it received more than 35,500 legal requests for customer data from law enforcement agencies. The company claims it has provided the requested information in just 2.5 percent of the cases. It has not disclosed its response rates for requests made under FISA.

Yahoo's last transparency report shows the company received a total of 13,771 government data requests in the second half of 2015, with the United States again leading other countries in terms of the number of requests. It provided the requested information in 1,394 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.