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Worldwide Government Requests for Google Data Jumped 70% from 2009 to 2012

Google released its bi-annual Transparency Report yesterday, one part of which is aimed at documenting the number of worldwide government and court requests it receives to hand over user data, usually (although not always) in criminal investigations.  The bad news:  the number of reported requests keeps rising - from 12,539 during the second half of 2009 to 21,389 during the second half of 2012, an increase of 70%.

The good news:  the percentage of requests where Google actually hands over the data is on the downswing, from 76% in the second half of 2010 (the earliest that Google began reporting this data) to 66% in the second half of 2012.  It's possible that Google is just getting better at deflecting these requests or it's also possible that governments are basing their requests on fewer and fewer justifiable reasons. Or some combination of both.

The more interesting question is what's happening over time in individual countries, whether authorities in some countries are stepping up or decreasing their demands for user data.  Although Google hasn't produced quite enough data yet to get a truly good look at the trends, the company has released enough data to tentatively talk about year-to-year trends in about twenty-two countries.

I've pasted at the end of this post a full table that contains my 2011 to 2012 analysis for all of these countries.  Based on this analysis, here are the top five and lowest five countries in terms of percentage growth for the number of data requests, data produced and accounts specified.

As you can see based on this breakdown, South Korea tops the list for the fastest growth rate in data requests, while Chile tops the list in terms of growth in the frequency of actual data produced.  South Korea also had the fastest growth rate in the number of accounts specified - the authorities there accessed almost double the number of accounts in 2012 that they did in 2011.

Singapore earns the distinction of having the lowest growth rate in terms of requests - the government authorities in Singapore made 11% fewer requests in 2012 than they did in 2011.  Portugal experienced a 44% drop in terms of how often actual data was produced and Singapore rounded out the bottom of the list in terms of the number of accounts specified, with a 44% decline from 2011 to 2012 in the number of Google accounts to which the authorities there gained access.

It's not clear that these trends mean much of anything at this point; a whole host of factors, such as a drop in the overall crime rates in any given country, shifts in government control, increased or decreased usage of Google services and many other variables can drive year-to-year changes.  And data can be cut a lot of ways - I've chosen percentage growth in data demands, which, although it equalizes the disparities among nations, can make things look bigger or smaller than they really are (after all, a jump from 1 to 2 is a 100% change, the same as an increase from 100 to 200).  Finally, Google itself is continually refining how it reports this difficult data and methodology changes could cause some of the data to be incomplete or incomparable for the purpose of this kind of analysis.  But even with these limitations, it might be useful to keep track of the changes over time to determine if some governments, some political regimes, are stepping up or easing back on their efforts to gain access to Internet data.

Another interesting point:  Google has for the first time released for the U.S. the kinds of legal processes that the authorities use when requesting data.  Around 68% of the requests are subpoenas, 22% are search warrants with the remaining 10% mostly court orders or other processes.  As I mentioned in a blog post two days ago, Google and other Internet companies are pushing to change the law, primarily the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), so that law enforcement and other government requests for data meet the more stringent legal requirements that warrants require.

Image Source:  Google.

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