Google proposes international standards as Government data requests rise again

There has been such a sharp jump in Government requests to Google for customer data, that their general Counsel has warned that international standards for such requests might have to be agreed to stem the tide.

Google Transparency Review:

Google’s bi-annual transparency review has been published every six months since 2010 and the latest version has revealed that between July 1st and December 31st, 2016, they received more than 45,500 requests from governments for user data around the world. That is an increase of more than 4,800 on the same six month period a year before.

This continues an upward trend in requests since Google first started publishing its report and once again it was the USA who were the highest requesters. They made 13,680 requests over the period of this report, with Germany next on the list with 9,900. They were followed by France, India, and then the UK in fifth place making 3,175 requests.

Some of this growth may be due to increased customer usage of Google services, but much can be put down to a greater reliance on such data by national intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies.

Careful scrutiny

To their credit, Google continues to scrutinize these requests carefully. The number of requests to which they provided at least some of the requested data in this latest report equated to around 6 in 10 of the requests received; a drop from around 6.4 in 10 requests in the previous two reporting periods.

Kent Walker, General Counsel to Google was keen to stress the thorough process that Google put all of these requests through. In particular, he highlighted their policy of refusing any requests they deem to be either too broad or containing content not relevant to law enforcement requirements.

But despite this thorough process, the increase in such requests is such, that Walker now feels companies like Google are starting to need “an international framework for data requests that meet established standards of due process and privacy.”

It is an optimistic statement and yet one which makes sense when you dig down into it.

A realistic proposal?

There are similar agreements in place, such as the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), which is the framework which oversees government requests for digital evidence in cross-border investigations. But Walker feels existing agreements are much too slow and bureaucratic to be of use of countries in the current international political climate.

He fears relying on such agreements is forcing countries down the route of unilaterally passing laws and creating a global patchwork of surveillance legislation which is not only very hard for Google to keep track of, but for individual users to understand as well.

As the laws in this area get ever more complex, Walker suspects that it is individual user privacy which will ultimately suffer.

But to reach a successful agreement Government’s would need to be willing to liaise with privacy campaigners and human rights groups as well as the main tech companies and ISPs. Whether they would be willing to engage on such a sensitive topic is very much open for debate.

“This discussion will raise difficult questions about the scope of government surveillance powers, the extent of digital jurisdiction, the importance of rapid investigations, and privacy rights in the Internet age,” Walker explains.

Google are not alone in contemplating this dilemma but are the first to make the suggestion of international standards. It is an appealing idea, although whether it is something that is achieveable in reality is unsure.

But the proposal does serve to highlight the need for change in what is becoming an over-legislated and intrusive legal area across the globe. Google want to reduce their expenditure on it, but it is an issue where user privacy is very much to the fore and one that privacy campaigners will no doubt continue to keep a close eye on.

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