Government online surveillance on rise in murky legal environment

Nov 14, 2012 06:26 am | CSO
by Antone Gonsalves

Google reported Tuesday that government surveillance based on requests for user data is rising steadily worldwide, with the U.S. leading the pack in a murky legal environment.

Google, which releases its Transparency Report on governments twice a year, says that in the first half of this year it received 20,938 inquiries from government entities globally, compared to 12,539 in the second half of 2009, which is when the search engine started releasing the information. The 2012 requests were for information about 34,614 user accounts.

"This is the sixth time we've released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise," Dorothy Chou, Google's senior policy analyst, said in the company's blog.

Governments increasingly turning to the Web for information reflects how a growing number of people are moving data online, said Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy for the Center for Democracy & Technology. "Our lives are moving online and governments realize that the service providers that we depend upon hold this treasure trove of information."

While data requests have risen steadily over the last three years, the number of government requests to remove content has remained largely flat until the most recent report, which saw the number spike to 1,791 from 1,048 in the second half of last year.

Many of the takedown requests involved defaming public officials, privacy violations against individuals, copyright infringement and extremist content, such neo-Nazi posts in Germany. Google, which has its own guidelines for content removal, did not honor all requests.

For example, Google refused to honor five requests and one court order in the U.S. to remove seven YouTube videos for criticizing local and state government agencies, law enforcement or public officials.

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The company also received U.S. court orders to remove 641 search results linking to websites allegedly defaming organizations and individuals. Google removed roughly a third of the results. Overall, the number of content removal requests in the U.S. rose by 46% from the last half of 2011.

U.S. government entities made the most number of requests for user data in the first half of this year with 7,969. Google honored 90% of the requests. Other countries in the top five were India, Brazil, France and Germany, respectively.

Requests for user information in the U.S. are justifiable in criminal investigations where law enforcement obtains a court warrant, Dempsey argues. Where the CDT sees potential privacy violations is when prosecutors issue subpoenas for personal information, such as the content of emails. Such data should require a warrant