Government

Google reports .govs requesting lots of user information

According to Google's latest Transparency Report, government requests for user information and requests to remove content have increased. Help Michael P. Kassner figure out what that means.

They say time flies as you get older, and I have to agree. It seems only yesterday I was writing about Google's Transparency Report for the second half of 2011. Yet, Google has now released its Transparency Report for the first half of 2012.

It's probably not going to shock anyone when I say the number of requests for user data by governments has increased each reporting period since Google started tracking. The Official Google Blog mentions:

"This is the sixth time we've released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise. As you can see from the graph below, government demands for user data have increased steadily since we first launched the Transparency Report. In the first half of 2012, there were 20,938 inquiries from government entities around the world. Those requests were for information about 34,614 accounts."

Google was getting "on average" 115 requests for user information each day between January and June of 2012. Requests to remove content by governments have increased as well. The obvious spike in the graph below for the first half of 2012 resulted from 1,791 requests to remove 17,746 pieces of content.

What governments?

I was curious as to what government bodies were involved. The report includes an interesting graph that breaks down the number of requests for user data Google received, and what country the requests came from.

There was something I missed in the report until I read this Naked Security blog by Paul Roberts. China was not included in the above graph. Roberts surmises:

Google has had a contentious relationship with the ruling Communist Party there, which is known to rely on a vast network of digital surveillance to keep tabs on the speech and activities of its citizens.

The report also goes into great depth about received requests to remove content from Google services, and what countries the requests came from. For example, the following graph refers to requests from government bodies in the United States. (For the curious, China did make this list.)

Next, Google itemized the type of United States .gov requests:

  • We received five requests and one court order to remove seven YouTube videos for criticizing local and state government agencies, law enforcement, or public officials. We did not remove content in response to these requests.
  • We received a court order to remove 1,754 posts from Google Groups relating to a case of continuous defamation against a man and his family. We removed 1,664 of the posts, which fell within the scope of the order.
  • We received three court orders to remove 641 search results for linking to websites that allegedly defame organizations and individuals. We removed 233 of the search results requested, which fell within the scope of the orders.
  • In response to a court order, we removed 156 search results because the web pages in question used a trademark in violation of an earlier order.
  • The number of content removal requests we received increased by 46 percent compared to the previous reporting period.

Some perspective

All these numbers made my head spin. I needed perspective. For instance, the number of requests seemed high, but is it? Let's take a look. I was curious as to how many people accessed Google services. As you'd expect, a lot. Even going back to 2011 -- get ready -- over a billion people access Google services every month (courtesy of comScore Data Mine).

How does that compare with the number of requests? I'll let you decide. And, more importantly, what does it means in the grand scheme of things?

Beneficial fallout

One thing about being the biggest kid on the block is it's easier to persuade others to follow your lead. Case in point, several other well-known services are now publishing similar transparency reports:

"We're heartened that in the past year, more companies like Dropbox, LinkedIn, Sonic.net, and Twitter have begun to share their statistics. Our hope is over time, more data will bolster public debate about how we can best keep the Internet free and open."

Here is the transparency report from Dropbox:

When allowed under the law, Dropbox is committed to letting you know how many data requests we receive from law enforcement. Between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012, law enforcement agencies served Dropbox with fewer than 40 warrants, subpoenas, and orders seeking user information. We scrutinize all government data requests to make sure they comply with the law. We will update this report at least once per year.

Final thoughts

As I worked through this article, I became less sure of what conclusion to draw. The number of requests by government organizations has gone up, but doesn't that number pale in comparison to the number of users accessing Google services. What do you smart people think?

About

Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

11 comments
bikingbill
bikingbill

Having nothing better to do at lunch time, I keyed in the best data I could find for the population of these countries. The "top" country for User Data Requests is Hong Kong, followed by the USA, France, Australia, and the UK. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the country with the fewest user requests is Russia.

ahanse
ahanse

It is inevitable that the internet as a whole will fall into place with standard social norms that have evolved over a long period of time. The ultimate aim is the melding of social norms that will be an extension of the globalisation push. Many people still think they are invisible on the internet and rant on inappropriately. Down at the local these people get slapped down quickly but on social media they have no such controls to check them. The main problem being many people seems to be sponges and take to the rants without question which fuels the fires that do untold damage to honest people and governments etc. As for user data requests what's new. That has been a corner stone of govt services for yonks, just a different format now.

Chashew
Chashew

This is a test of Spy vs Spy Inc. From the year 1995 to today it has been common knowledge that Google was a national hero in data collection. Then Facebook followed suit because of it being one of if not the biggest social network to date. Why is it that just yesterday Facebook announces the introduction of yet another Security and privacy group with new and improved gizmos to protect your online data ? Do they really thing we are stupid ? Is it the pomp of being security agents/techs that give them the lightheaded feeling of being all powerful ? What may happen very soon is the destruction of all accounts and people going back to bogus accounts and bogus machines like it was in the 80s. Then what ? will that put privacy out to pasture ? I find this spy vs spy gotta know how much time people spend online stuff crass. What about those who are terminally ill or home alone ? Is the Government going to send in the swat team to unplug them. Now I understand fully what Anonymous and other groups are doing. How do you like that mister mustache ? Now watch my post get the red light :) And see if they don't watch us here to guys.

petersword
petersword

This may sound rather specious, but I fear that Orwell had a certain amount of vision concerning governmental reach and overreach. I have nothing to hide from the government...no seditious activities or illegal eterprises and I must admit that a little action about all the hate expressed in various venues is welcome....but where will it stop? We either live in a free and open society, or we do not. Controls by those with power can and do corrupt those who wield such power is way above my pay grade, but I cannot help but wonder what will happen next.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

seems to me that all the requests are for the removal of posts or articles on their sites, not about the individuals who are making them. Is this true? If this is so, or all but so, then it means this isn't about Big Brother watching what we're doing, but looking at what is available. With the bulk of the requests coming from court orders, which will often be coming from individuals and not government bodies, per se. Protection of name and legal rights being the basis for over 80% of the requests, and about 60% being court ordered, and probably from companies or people and not gov't agencies - if I'm reading the graph right. Also, my own experience is this is not of much concern re gov't spying on us. I write stories and in order to make them seem more realistic I research them as best as I can. I know from contacts I have in my local intelligence community that the past research for some of those stories have triggered checks by the US intelligence community due to my visits to certain web sites and particular parts of the web sites. And none of that would have resulted from Google searches or sites. Which just shows the gov't does have better ways to check up on what people do in some parts of the Internet.

goldenpirate
goldenpirate

i refuse to use Google under any circumstance. But I suppose that the search engines i do use (infrequentl) would be subjected to this type government snooping as well. But I realy do have to ask this question: in times when corrupt and crooked politicians consider themselves better than the rest of us, WHAT ELSE IS NEW????

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I have never heard it mention that the Internet will fall into place -- kind of an evolution thing. Interesting.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I think it might be simpler than that. A famous ex-governor from MN taught me several things one being "Follow the Money."

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I just completed a study of Mr. Orwell and it seems that his whole life prior to writing Animal Farm and 1984 was in preparation. Stalin's reign had a huge impact on Orwell, even to a point where Stalin had Orwell on a hit list while he was in Spain. One interesting tidbit I learned, 1984 has a different significance from what most of us think. When Orwell was trying to come up with a title, he had many versions that he did not like. His editor told him to make it short and pertain to the future. The year the manuscript was finished was 1948. So Orwell, flipped the last two digits and came up with 1984.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Google created a very detailed report. I only dealt with the portion looking at what governmental bodies were asking Google to do. If you check there were two separate graphs: One depicting the number of requests for user information and the other graph was a request to remove content. The one that I focused on was requests for user data. That long slide showing all the countries is the actual number of requests for user information that Google received from that particular country -- with the US leading the pact.