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November 13, 2012

Google: Government Surveillance Spikes Worldwide—Especially in United States

Posted in: Freedom of Expression,Privacy

Screen shot of Google transparency report showing increase in requests for content censorship by US authorities

The increasingly omniscient and omnipresent corporation that is Google has released its latest transparency report on requests from government authorities around the world to take down content and hand the data of users over to agencies. The report indicates “authorities worldwide made 20,939 requests for access to personal data from Google users, including search results, access to Gmail accounts and removal of YouTube videos.” The requests rose sharply from 12,539 “in the last six months of 2009,” when Google first published a transparency report.

Government officials from various countries in the world made 1,789 requests to remove 17,746 “pieces of content” from Google. As The Guardian highlighted in its coverage of the report, “For the first time, the governments of Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Monaco, Mauritius, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Trinidad and Tobago and South Africa requested the removal of content from Google.” The “sharpest rise” in requests occurred in Turkey with authorities requesting the removal of “26 YouTube videos, Blogger blogs, one Google document and one search result. The contested items allegedly criticised Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the first president of Turkey), the government or ‘national identity and values.’”

Requests for removal of content were up 46% in the United States and “accounted for the most requests,” which has been the case since Google began to release transparency reports. “US authorities asked for private details of Google users on 7,969 occasions, up from 6,321 in the last reporting period,” according to The Guardian.” The number is more than a third of the 20,938 requests for users’ details worldwide. Google fully or partially complied with 90% of those requests.” (Interestingly, Google doesn’t find the increase surprising “since each year [it] offer[s] more products and services” and has a “larger number of users.”)

From January to June 2012, Google received “five requests and one court order to remove seven YouTube videos for criticizing local and state government agencies, law enforcement or public officials.” Google did not remove any content in response to the requests. It received a court order to “remove 1,754 posts from Google Groups relating to a case of continuous defamation against a man and his family” and removed 1,664 posts that they found fell within the scope of the court order.

Three court orders demanded Google remove 641 search results for “linking to websites that allegedly defame organizations and individuals.” Google removed 233 of the search results. And, in response to another court order, it removed 156 search results “because the web pages in question used a trademark in violation of an earlier order.”

US authorities requested user data more than any other country. It made 5,650 more requests for user data than India, the country with the second highest number of requests. (Google complied with a higher percentage of US authorities’ requests than requests from Indian authorities.)

As Google outlines in the report, “The statistics here reflect the number of law enforcement agency requests for information we receive at Google and YouTube, the percentage of requests that we comply with (in whole or in part) and the number of users or accounts specified in the requests. We review each request to make sure that it complies with both the spirit and the letter of the law, and we may refuse to produce information or try to narrow the request in some cases.”

When Google released its transparency report for the last six months of 2011 in June, Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation commented on the scale of content censorship evident from the statistics, “This is particularly insidious because, in doing so, that content is not merely hidden behind a firewall but instead disappears entirely.”

The Irish Times reported on what could only be considered an act of blatant hypocrisy. Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary of state in the US Bureau of Democracy, told attendees at a conference hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “Too many governments were filtering, censoring content, taking down sites and perpetuating internet shut downs…Human rights and fundamental freedoms do not change with new technologies.”

As the Google data shows, no country has more government authorities pressing for censorship, filtering or take downs than the United States. But, of course, like many messages from US officials on freedom, liberty or human rights, the message is rife with American exceptionalism. Melia would likely claim the high percentage of content censorship and requests for user data is justified while the increasing number of instances in other countries are not as justified because those countries have governments less respectful of privacy and freedom.

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The frequently asked questions (FAQ) for the report notes the user data requests generally reveal statistics on “demands in criminal investigations.” Some instances, Google may not be able to tell if the demand really is “for a criminal investigation as opposed to some other purpose.” This suggests that like the previous report there are still many questions left outstanding, which cannot be answered by the report.

Months ago, the ACLU’s Alexander Abdo wrote on the report in the last six months of 2011:

It’s hard to understand just what that number means. Google’s website explains that its transparency statistics do not cover “all categories of data requests from the government,” but focus primarily on “requests in criminal matters.” This means that the statistics very likely don’t cover the most troublesome surveillance authorities passed after 9/11, such as National Security Letters, Patriot Act orders under Section 215, and the increasingly opaque FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (which replaced and in some ways expanded the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program). (These national-security powers are now used in criminal investigations, too.)

Abdo appropriately asked, “How many times has the government tapped Google using those new surveillance powers?” Details on this trend are missing, even though it is known the government increasingly relies on these powers with “relatively little public oversight and even less meaningful judicial review.” Abdo speculated statistics on these powers might “dwarf” the “very limited statistics” in Google’s transparency report.

Just this year, it has become public knowledge that warrantless surveillance through pen registers and trap devices by the US government has risen sharply. The increase in orders “targeting email and network communications data” increased exponentially—361% between 2009 and 2011. In June, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit for records on how the government engages in warrantless surveillance of Americans’ email and other electronic communications.

Tor software developer Jacob Appelbaum, who has been subjected to government subpoenas for his user data from Twitter and other services because of his connection to WikiLeaks, powerfully described what companies are doing in the US on Julian Assange’s show, “The World Tomorrow.”

It’s absolute madness to imagine that we give up all of our personal data to these companies and then the companies have become essentially privatized secret police where in the case of Facebook we have democratized surveillance and instead of paying people off the way the Stasi did in your country [Germany] we reward them as a culture—They get laid now. They report on their friends. So and so got engaged. Oh, so and so broke up. Oh, I know who to call now. This is the difference between privacy by policy and privacy by design approach to actually creating secure systems.

When you’re trying to target people and you know you live in a country that explicitly targets people—If Facebook put its servers in Gaddafi’s Libya or put it in Assad’s Syria, that would be absolutely negligent. So, knowing that’s reality, these companies have some serious ethical liability that stems from the fact that their building these systems and they’ve made the economic choice basically to sell their users out. This isn’t even a technical thing. It isn’t about technology at all. It’s about economics. And they have decided that it is more important to collaborate with the state and to sell out their users and to violate their privacy and to be a part of the system of control, to be paid back for being a part of the surveillance culture, to be part of that culture of control than to be resistant to it. So they build it. They become a part of it. They’re complicit and liable. [emphasis added]

When considering Appelbaum’s wise comment, one cannot help but ask, what isn’t Google showing us? What might the government be telling Google it cannot show citizens and what is it deciding to acquiesce to by not drawing attention to any of these other methods of surveillance?

The latest transparency report clearly demonstrates an expansion of the Surveillance State. In addition to authorities becoming more comfortable with censoring content, it suggests authorities are becoming more amenable to requesting user data. The idea that this violates freedom of expression or the digital due process rights of citizens is increasingly no bother to those with the power at their fingertips to exercise this authority. And, as with the previous report, what the report does not tell us about the activities of the national security state is actually more frightening than the data, which Google has chosen to share with the public.


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