Google transparency report curiously opaque, thanks to FBI gag order

Google wants to be seen as a crusader for Internet transparency, and its new report details who is asking for users' information. But the report is incomplete, Google acknowledges.

By , Staff writer

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    This photo shows a Google data center in Hamina, Finland. Google released its semiannual transparency report Thursday – its first since the Edward Snowden leaks.
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Tech giant Google portrays itself as an earnest crusader for transparency straining against an overbearing government in its new Transparency Report released Thursday – its first since Edward Snowden revealed the company's connection to a clandestine National Security Agency surveillance program.

The semiannual report, which documents who is asking Google for information on its users, reveals a steady surge in government requests for Google users' data. The company received 12,539 requests in the last six months of 2009; in the first half of 2013, that number had more than doubled to 25,879.

The US accounted for 10,918 of those requests, but the report makes clear that the numbers are incomplete, due to government gag orders. Beside three charts showing the demographics, growth, and format of these requests is a chart labeled "Foreign Intelligent Surveillance Act requests," which is inked out.

Recommended: How well do you know the world of spying? Take our CIA and NSA quiz.

"We want to go even further. We believe it’s your right to know what kinds of requests and how many each government is making of us and other companies. However, the U.S. Department of Justice contends that U.S. law does not allow us to share information about some national security requests that we might receive…. Our promise to you is to continue to make this report robust, to defend your information from overly broad government requests, and to push for greater transparency around the world," states the report.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo are all suing for the right to share more detailed information about the FISA requests they receive from the NSA and the FBI, according to the Associated Press. The Obama administration opposes the lawsuits, arguing that any disclosures would compromise antiterrorism programs. Currently, the companies are barred from disclosing even the number of FISA requests they receive.

"Google has not been allowed to give truthful and complete information about how often our government comes seeking user data, and that is rightfully offensive to Google and to its consumers," says Nate Cardozo, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who specializes in privacy and free speech. "The Obama administration claims that it wants transparency, and I think these actions belie that claim."

Google's update comes five months after reports broke about the PRISM program, in which the NSA was collecting user data from the servers of nine companies. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft accounted for 98 percent of that information.

It also comes amid a push by tech companies and Internet freedom advocates to require a warrant for the government to demand communications. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bipartisan bill to reform the 1987 Electronic Communications Privacy Act earlier this year. A companion bill in the House has more than 140 sponsors, according to the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Currently, 68 percent of Google's US requests come in the form of subpoenas, 22 percent as warrants, and the rest as court orders, pen register orders, and emergency disclosure requests.

Google's transparency report began in 2010 as a response to increasing pressure to divulge government requests. It was the first major tech company to issue a transparency report, and six of its peers have followed.

According to a chart by the EFF, Twitter and Sonic.net are the only two tech companies that receive a full six stars for transparency, telling users about government data requests, requiring warrants, publishing transparency reports and enforcement guidelines, and fighting for users' privacy both in courts and in Congress. Of the 18 companies included on the chart, Verizon is the only one that has taken none of these actions. Google would earn six stars if it started alerting users to government data requests.

The 10,918 US requests documented in the report account for nearly half of those Google received from January to June of this year. India filed 2,691 during the same period, and Germany filed 2,311. But neither matched the US government's 83 percent success rate; Google complied with only 64 percent of India's requests, and 48 percent of Germany's.  

The government's interest in companies like Google is nothing new. The US has long tapped businesses that have "a lot of customer data, like a phone company, a power company, or a shipping company," says Mr. Cardozo of the EFF.

The difference is the volume of data Google has, he adds: "Google has similar types of information, just more of it."

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