Report outlines FBI data requests to Google

6 March, 2013 by Zach Miners, IDG News Service
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Some thousand-plus Google users have been subject to FBI security information requests in the US since 2009, the company said Tuesday. The data build on Google’s already existing tally of government data requests.

The new figures look at the number of National Security Letters (NSLs) – information requests from the FBI or other executive branch agencies for conducting national security investigations – that Google has received since 2009.

Google is presenting the data in the form of ranges, so it is not clear to what extent the number of NSLs issued to the company has been increasing or decreasing over the past several years.

Still, there were between 1,000 and 1,999 user accounts in question in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and NSL requests were made for between 2,000 and 2,999 accounts in 2010, Google said Tuesday in a blog post. For every year since 2009 there have been between zero and 999 NSLs covering those accounts, Google said.

The company is reporting numerical ranges rather than exact numbers given the government’s concern that releasing exact numbers would reveal information about the investigations, the company said.

Still, the numbers are being released to address people’s questions about “the increase in their use since 9/11,” Google did say.

“Our users trust Google with a lot of very important data, whether it’s emails, photos, documents, posts or videos,” said Richard Salgado, Google’s law enforcement and information security legal director, in the post.

But, “people don’t always use our services for good, and it’s important that law enforcement be able to investigate illegal activity,” he said.

With an NSL, Google may be compelled to disclose “the name, address, length of service, and local and long distance toll billing records” of a subscriber to a wire or electronic communications service, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

NSLs cannot be used to obtain other data from Google such as email content, search queries, YouTube videos or user IP addresses, Google said.

Google aims to scrutinise all government data requests carefully to ensure they satisfy the law and their policies, the company said.

Google’s biannual “transparency report” documents a range of government requests for users’ data, mostly as it pertains to criminal investigations.

The company’s last such report was published in January, which showed that from July through December 2012, Google had seen a modest rise in information requests for some 33,634 users.

The NSL figures, which Google plans to update annually, will be included in the company’s transparency reports going forward. The ranges are not included in the total sum of user data requests that Google has reported previously, the company said.

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