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Google's Transparency Tool Exposes Government Demands for Personal Information

Sandra Fulton,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 29, 2011

Google released its new transparency report this week, revealing that U.S. government demands for the personal information of Google’s users, like chat records or emails, continue to rise. The report serves to emphasize the heightened importance of increased transparency about how often the government is accessing sensitive information about who we are, where we go, what we do and why.

According to Google, between July and December of 2010, government agencies worldwide asked Google to disclose personal information over 14,000 times. The country with by far the greatest number of requests — 4,601 — was the United States (Google complied with 94 percent of these requests). Brazil was second with 1,804. And yet our government itself doesn’t reveal the number of requests it makes to companies like Google for information about its citizens and residents. In a country that prides itself on the democratic principles of protecting free expression and access to information, secretly demanding records of its citizens’ online surfing, reading or location information is unacceptable. We applaud Google for continuing to report such abuses and encourage other companies to follow their lead.

While the Google numbers are staggering, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Law enforcement is increasingly taking advantage of technologies, like the Internet and cell phones, in order to monitor Americans. In just one year, Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with the specific whereabouts of its customers more than 8 million times . And according to Sprint, the law requires neither a warrant nor probable cause to access this information. Sprint even set up a website for law enforcement agents so they could access these records from the comfort of their desks. “The tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement,” said Sprint’s Manager of Electronic Surveillance. We bet it has.

Google’s transparency report should serve as one example to other companies on how to protect the privacy of its users. Twitter’s recent resistance to a sealed demand from the U.S government for information on individuals suspected of having ties to WikiLeaks demonstrates another opportunity. Demands for our online information go to companies, not to us. Therefore, we have to rely upon those companies to stand up to law enforcement and resist overbroad requests. Where the law is outdated and full of loopholes, and where law enforcement is under no obligation to reveal how often it demands information about users, we need these companies to do more than just resist. We need them to step up and provide the transparency and accountability that users deserve.

So join us in calling on other companies to follow the examples set by Google and Twitter and take a stand for their users. Please go here to sign our petition urging private companies to protect our privacy.

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