Google: Government User Data Requests up 120%

John Lister's picture

Google says the rate at which governments and other groups ask it to hand over user data has more than doubled in the past five years. However, a growing proportion of those requests are proving unjustified.

The figures come from Google's twice-yearly Transparency Report, which it has been publishing since the second half of 2009. Back then it received a total of 12,539 requests in six months. That figure has risen in every period and the latest data, covering the second half of 2013, shows 27,477 requests. Since the first report, the number of requests made by governments has increased by approximately 120 percent. (Source:

Google also publishes the proportion of the requests in which it hands over at least some data. It says it only ever does this when presented with a valid court order, or when receiving a demand from a government agency with the legal right to get the information.

In the second half of 2010, the first time Google published this statistic, it handed over data in 76 percent of cases. That's also fallen consistently and for the second half of 2013 the figure was 64 percent. (Source:

A Third Of Data Requests Not Legally Valid

In other words: three years ago, one-in-four requests weren't legally valid, but now that's the case for one-in-three requests. That suggests governments and other agencies are increasingly "trying their luck" with unjustified demands.

Not surprisingly, the US was the source of the most requests in the most recent statistics. It's also the country with the second-highest level of requests where Google did hand over some data, though that's partly because the US has more legal authority over Google than most countries.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on the list was Canada: groups there made a total of 52 requests, but only 25 percent of these led to Google handing over data. Hungary had the worst record, making 42 requests, all of which were rejected.

Security Agency Demands Not Included In Figures

The figures for the US only cover criminal law with requests coming through search warrants, court order and subpoenas. They don't cover the activities of security services.

Google is not allowed to give specific figures for security-related requests; instead it can give an idea of the range. For example, the FBI can issue what are called national security letters to Google. These don't need a court order, but the recipient is still legally required to hand over the information requested in the letter. Google isn't allowed to say exactly how many of these letters it gets, only that in the second half of 2013 the number was between 1,000 and 1,999.

Of course, even these vague figures may not tell the whole story. Leaked documents from the National Security Agency (NSA) suggest US spies may be able to retrieve user data without Google even knowing about it.

What's Your Opinion?

Are you concerned about the increasing number of government requests for user data? Are you reassured in any way that the US has one of the best records for making "legitimate" requests? Do you think governments act fairly in balancing privacy and security when it comes to online data?

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