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Google Data Shows Government Internet Surveillance Far Outstrips Wiretap Requests

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, October 25 2011

Alongside an update to its public records about government requests for user information, Google this morning announced that it would begin disclosing not just the number of requests governments worldwide are making for user data, but the number of individual users affected by those requests.

The new data reveal that Google receives more requests in six months from U.S. law enforcement agencies than all of the wiretaps orders issued nationwide in a single year, privacy and surveillance researcher Christopher Soghoian pointed out to me in an email. The Electronic Privacy Information Center reported that in 2010, federal and state courts issued 3,194 orders for the interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications — up 34 percent from 2009, per EPIC. (Only 26 percent of intercepted communications in 2010 were incriminating.) Google, meanwhile, received 4,601 requests for disclosure of user data from July to December 2010 alone. These numbers are not inclusive of the various tools at the disposal of federal law enforcement that often come with gag orders, such as National Security Letters, as Wired's Threat Level blog editor Ryan Singel notes. And if there's any data available about what portion of information requests from Google has lead to criminal charges being filed, I'd love to see them.

"One reason for this is that it is much much easier to get stored communications data from an Internet company than to get an order to intercept communications data in real time with a wiretap," Soghoian said.

A new wave of anti-authoritarian activism is sweeping the country; meanwhile, recent reports suggest that law enforcement, with a rocky record where activists are concerned, are developing ever-more-sophisticated surveillance operations. As those operations move online, they move into territory where they are required to make little to no mandatory disclosure.

Last year, Google launched its Transparency Report, an interactive map of government requests for information and a set of traffic graphs showing traffic to Google services from around the world. The Government Requests map provides useful insight into how ubiquitous active Internet surveillance is around the world. Because of Google's central position in the Internet's information structure, how the company's networks view changes in traffic from around the world provides a regularly updated snapshot of Internet access worldwide — and can tip observers to government-orders restrictions of service.

But Google's disclosures are purely voluntary, and none of its peers follow suit — angering privacy activists like Soghoian.

"The other big firms, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, Microsoft should all be ashamed of themselves," he wrote to me. "They have similar data internally, but they are scared of releasing it, as it might give users a legitimate reason to not trust the firms with their data."