Google Explains How it Handles Gov't Data Requests

Dennis Faas's picture

Google has, for the first time ever, detailed exactly what it does when a government agency or court demands to see a user's personal data. That data includes the terms someone has used for an online search and the content of Gmail messages.

Google says that it's reporting on this issue in an attempt to show that it aims to protect privacy wherever possible.

The search giant has for several years produced statistics about how many requests for personal data it gets in each country and what percentage of those requests it complies with.

This publication is an attempt to draw attention to the issue and spark debate about whether governments go too far in requesting information from Google.

United States Requests Most Info

The figures show the United States government makes the most requests for Google user information and that Google is most likely to comply with requests for data from Washington.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the US is the biggest snooper; instead, this trend could be related to the fact that Google is based in the United States and therefore faces serious consequences if it doesn't respond to government requests for information.

Four-Stage Process Protects Personal Data

Google now says it follows a four-stage process with every data access request. The first step involves checking to make sure the request is lawful and comes from authorized officials. As a general rule, Google only follows requests made in writing. (Source:

The second step is to see if the request is too broad and goes beyond what is required by law. Google says it "frequently" rejects requests that can be narrowed and made more specific. (Source:

At this stage Google notifies the user of the data request unless it is legally barred from doing so. Wherever possible Google says it challenges court "gagging orders."

Finally, Google assesses explanations for data access requests. If it's related to a criminal investigation, Google holds tight until it is served with a legal search warrant. In the US, Google maintains this is required by the fourth amendment.

Google Wants Changes to Electronic Search Law

Despite these measures, Google says that in many cases the government requests access to more data than is necessary. That's prompted Google to join a number of other privacy-minded groups in lobbying for tighter restrictions on how much information the government can access.

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