Twice a year Google publishes what it calls a Transparency Report. The reports contain, among other data, specific information regarding the number of requests the company has received from governments around the world for information about its users’ activities. The US typically places far more requests for information than any other government. Not surprising, given the range of its global interests and the size of its various intelligence operations. Google also reports how often it has complied with the requests and to what degree. The last report, issued Monday, says Google complied with US requests nearly 90% of the time.
It will surprise some to learn that the government’s burden in most of these cases involves nothing more than producing a subpoena, requiring no judicial consent. (In these cases, if your information has been requested, Google will attempt to let you know about it.) Far more alarming for privacy advocates (those lonely voices raging against the machine) are the additional requests for information the US government makes under the auspices of the Patriot Act. Two things stand out about these requests. First, they are never reported to the public, in order to safeguard national security. As a result, Google’s Transparency Reports, while seeking to reveal, probably contain only the proverbial tip of the iceberg as far as information requests go. The known requests could be dwarfed by the number issued beneath the opaque surface of the Patriot Act, which can’t lawfully be revealed. Second, Google isn’t allowed to inform suspected users about the inquiries. Eminently sensible if one is wary of alerting terrorists that their activities are being scrutinized, worrisome in so many other ways.
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