Fed increase surveillance of Google users by 33 percent in 2012

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Federal government requests for Google user data continue to rise year by year, and 2012 was no different, according to Google’s newly released biannual Transparency Report.

Government requests for Google user data have risen 70 percent since 2009, and the U.S. government has led the way each year. 40 percent of user data requests came from the U.S. government in 2012.

Google said Wednesday that 68 percent of the requests by the U.S. government were made through subpoenas.

“These are requests for user-identifying information, issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (‘ECPA’), and are the easiest to get because they typically don’t involve judges,” wrote Richard Salgado, Legal Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security at Google, in a company blog post.

ECPA, first passed in 1986, was designed to extend consumer wire tap protections against the federal government that were already in place for the telephone to electronic data sent via computer.

The law has come under heavy criticism in recent years for being outdated and not adequately protecting consumer electronic privacy. Law enforcement, however, has argued the opposite, stating that it needs adequate tools and legal means to address Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte have both said that privacy and ECPA will be major legislative issues for them for the coming year. Jill Kelley, angered by the way law enforcement had compromised her privacy, also has implored Congress to address the problems associated with ECPA.

“22 percent were through ECPA search warrants,” said Salgado.

“These are, generally speaking, orders issued by judges under ECPA, based on a demonstration of “probable cause” to believe that certain information related to a crime is presently in the place to be searched,” he said.

“The remaining 10 percent were mostly court orders issued under ECPA by judges or other processes that are difficult to categorize,” he said.

The report was the first time Google disclosed the means by which data requests were made.

Trevor Timm, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that “two out of every three US demands to Google come without a warrant.”

“The total numbers in the US for 2012 amounted to a 33% increase from 2011,” he wrote in a blog post.

“And while Google only complied with two-thirds of the total requests globally, they complied with 88% of the requests in the United States,” said Timm.

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Josh Peterson