Google: Law enforcement's best friend?

Don't expect the company to turn federal investigators away. In 19 out of 20 cases last year, it handed over requested data.

By Amey Stone Jun 27, 2011 4:51PM

Image: Laws (© Photodisc Green/Getty Images)By Andy Greenberg, ForbesForbes on MSN Money

 

When law enforcement comes looking for evidence hidden in your Google (GOOG) search history, Gmail or the innumerable other Google services that touch many Internet users' lives, don't expect Google to turn the investigators away. In 19 out of 20 cases in the second half of last year, the company handed over at least some of the data the government demanded.

 

On Monday, Google updated its Transparency Report, a laudable effort to make users more aware of how the company deals with governments that request that it take down content, demand the company hand information over to the police or block local connections to Google services. And for the first time, Google now reveals the percentage of government requests for user data that it actually complies with: In the United States from July to December 2010, that number was 94%, higher than in any other country.

 

To be fair, Google is far from unique in giving up its data to law enforcement. It's unique only in talking about it. Chris Soghoian, a privacy researcher at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, points out that most other Internet companies and telecommunications firms likely hand over users' private information just as often but don't tell their users anything about their policies. “If police have a valid court order, Google doesn’t have many options,” Soghoian says. “They’re the only ones that provide these numbers. Everyone else is cowering in the shadows. Companies don’t want their customers to know they’re handing over their data.”

Google received 4,601 requests for data from the U.S. government during those six months, more than twice as many as from any other country. But its report doesn’t differentiate within those requests between criminal investigations and emergency requests in other cases, in which Google is not legally bound to hand over the data.

 

In many other countries, the Internet giant is far less likely to comply with the government’s demands. Google only gave the Brazilian government information in 76% of the 1,804 cases in which the country requested it, and for only 72% of the U.K.’s 1,162 requests. It took an even stronger line against countries like Poland, Hungary and Turkey, giving over data in only 33 times out of the 272 in which Poland requested it, and in none of the 45 Turkish or 68 Hungarian requests.

 

Update: Google spokesperson Christine Chen wrote in a statement explaining that “Some requests may not be specific enough for us to know what the government wanted us to remove (for example, no URL is listed in the request), and others involve allegations of defamation through informal letters from government agencies rather than a court orders,” she writes. “We generally rely on courts to decide if a statement is defamatory according to local law.”

 

But whether Google has employees and property in a country may also play a role, says Soghoian. In 2007, for instance, the Brazilian government threatened to arrest local Google staff in Brazil over controversial data posted to the company’s Orkut social networking site. Google eventually agreed to give up some data on related users without actually handing over the full content of those users’ information.

 

With most of its servers, employees, and other investments in the U.S. -- and a government anti-trust investigation in the works -- it’s no wonder that Google complies most tightly with its own country’s laws. “Google can’t afford to piss off members of Congress,” says Soghoian. “They may be more willing to take the heat in Brazil or Germany. But saying no to law enforcement requests is a good way to increase negative impression on Capitol Hill.”

 

Google’s Chen points out that despite its compliance with U.S. requests, Google still has a better track record than other technology companies in respecting users’ privacy from the government. In 2006, she points out, Google was the only major search engine to refuse to comply with a government subpoena for two months of users’ search queries. ”Once we receive a request, we first check to make sure it meets both the letter and spirit of the law before complying,” she writes in a statement. “Whenever possible, we notify affected users about any requests for user data that may affect them. And if we believe a request is overly broad, we will seek to narrow it.”

 

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