Where’s the fourth Amendment when you need it? The one that, you know, is supposed to protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures. I ask because Google this week disclosed that government agencies in the U.S. made a record number of requests for user data in the last half of 2012 — but only 22 percent were backed up by a warrant.
The fact that most of the requests were only supported by subpoenas, a much lower standard than a warrant, didn’t stop Google from honoring nearly all of those requests.
Between July and December of 2012, Google says it received 8,438 U.S. government requests for its users’ data and complied to some degree in 88 percent of those cases. That’s about one-third more requests than were made a year ago, and a stunning increase of 70 percent since Google first started issuing its Transparency Reports in 2009. (You can read the most recent report here. Be sure you drill down to the country level.)
I’d be less disturbed about this, if it weren’t part of a pattern of government agencies demanding private data, often without going to the trouble of obtaining a warrant.
In 2011, cellphone carriers reported that they responded to a 1.3 million demands for subscriber information from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations. And don’t think those requests pertained mainly to investigations of terrorism; many had to do with far less serious matters investigated by local police.
It’s probably not reasonable to expect Google to be more resistant to government requests, and the company deserves some credit for being as open as it is. To my knowledge, none of the other large tech companies, such as Facebook or the wireless carriers, let the public know nearly as much. They should of course — and Google agrees:
“We’ll keep looking for more ways to inform you about government requests and how we handle them. We hope more companies and governments themselves join us in this effort by releasing similar kinds of data,” Richard Salgado, Google’s legal director, law enforcement and information security, said in a blog post.
Interestingly, Russia, hardly a model of open government, made only 97 requests for user data in the same period in 2012, while Western democracies made many times more: the UK made 1,458; Germany 1,550; France 1,693.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.