March 6, 2013
Google Says FBI Requested Info On Thousands Of Users Without Warrant
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
As an extension of their policy of being “open,” Google often releases “Transparency Reports” detailing the types of traffic they handle as well as requests they receive from national governments and law enforcement agencies. Sometimes these are requests to remove content from their sites, such as controversial and incendiary videos on YouTube. Additionally, governments and law enforcement agencies sometimes ask the search giant for information about their users to help them with investigations and searches.
For over two years, Google has compiled these requests in a comprehensive Transparency Report, presumably for the sake of keeping everyone accountable and honest. Google announced yesterday that they will now begin including warrantless requests from the FBI for user data.
Last year, the FBI asked Google for information on at least 1,000 accounts, though the exact number remains unknown. The new report is scant on specifics, yet the picture painted by its broad strokes is an unnerving one. According to the Wall Street Journal, these NSLs are used by the FBI to gather financial, Internet and phone data without first going before a judge or grand jury to get a warrant. So long as the FBI believes this information is a matter of “national security,” they´re legally allowed to ask for this information. Companies who receive these letters are often bound by a gag order and are not permitted to acknowledge they ever received one.
“The FBI has the authority to prohibit companies from talking about these requests,” writes Richard Salgado, Google´s Law Director or Law Enforcement and Information Security in a blog post. “But we´ve been trying to find a way to provide more information about the NSLs we get — particularly as people have voiced concerns about the increase in their use since 9/11.”
By working with the FBI, Google was able to develop a way to disclose this information, though what they´re able to share is incredibly vague. According to the report, Google has received somewhere around a thousand of these NSLs every year for the past four years. Last year, these NSLs spiked up from over a thousand to as high 2,000 but the search engine giant is prohibited from saying exactly how many they received.
The 2012 number, however, still remains lower than the number of requests made in 2010, when the FBI asked for information on between 2,000 and 3,000 users.
The FBI is empowered by the controversial Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) 18 USC section 2709 to request some basic information from companies, such as the name, address, phone records and duration of service of individuals. These NSLs cannot ask for specific data, however, such as Gmail content, search queries or YouTube activity. Therefore, Google is not required to hand over this information to the feds.
Google has also said that they alert their users when a request for their data is made whenever they are legally permitted to do so.
They also insist that they strive to narrow the scope of information requests that they believe to be too broad. Google´s latest Transparency Report was released in January and showed that requests from American law enforcement had grown by 70 percent in the past three years.