U.S. requests more and more Google user data

Under an outdated act, the U.S. government can obtain user data easily from Google without a warrant

Published January 23, 2013 6:08PM (EST)

    (AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA / Shutterstock)
(AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA / Shutterstock)

Google Wednesday released its most recent Transparency Report, showing a sharp uptick in U.S. government warrantless requests for user data. User data requests by government entities worldwide have increased by 70 percent since Google first began amassing this data in 2009, with a particularly sharp uptick in U.S. government requests.

Google's most recent report is the first to break down the kinds of legal process that government entities in the U.S. use when compelling communications and technology companies to hand over user data. Notably, the vast majority of requests (68 percent) are made without the need for search warrants. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, government agencies can issue subpoenas to request user-identifying information from third-party servers. Google reported it complies to some extent with 90 percent of such requests.

As the Guardian noted, "The ECPA has been widely criticized by privacy advocates, and was passed in 1986, long before electronic communication became so common. Under the act, email stored on a third party's server for more than 180 days is considered abandoned. To access that information, officials need only a written statement certifying that the information is relevant to an investigation."

Online privacy advocates stress the need to reform ECPA, which, by virtue of treating old, open emails as abandoned, gives more protection to unopened spam messages than stored, personal emails. "Governments must stop treating the user data held by corporations as a treasure trove of information they can mine whenever they please, with little or no judicial authorization," Privacy International's head of international advocacy, Carly Nyst, told the BBC following Google's release Wednesday.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Ecpa Google Privacy Transparency User Data