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Google Raises Privacy Concerns After Releasing User Data to FBI

by Beck Alleman, published


Recently, Google shed light on what would be considered by many to be unethical: allowing the FBI to access Google users' information in order to gather data on suspects.

According to Google, the FBI has, for the past few years, has sent a large number of national security letters (NSLs) requesting information on its users who the FBI suspects have committed some type of criminal activity.

As for the actual information requested, that is obviously confidential and differs from person-to-person, but Google did say they do not allow the FBI to obtain content such as "...Gmail content, search queries, YouTube videos or user IP addresses."

Google is far from the only company to be targeted by the FBI, but it is the most widely used. This information gathering technique does not require a warrant (unless they are requesting information from a private Google account), and allows the FBI to gather information on users, including their name and address.

For Google's vast pool of users, this technique is very effective. Just last year alone Google -- according to its transparency report -- received between 0-999 national security letters targeting between 1000 and 1999 user accounts. The numbers are not allowed to be exact due to confidentiality laws. Tweet it: Tweet

Even more interesting is what these requests for info are used for. Since 2009, when Google started tracking FBI requests for user info, the vast majority of requests have been used for subpoenas -- about 70 percent -- and approximately 20 percent are used for search warrants. Tweet at the @FBIPressOffice: Tweet

Although many of Google's users have grown distrustful of Google's sometimes sneaky tracking practices, these FBI investigations are not Google's doing. In fact, as of right now, Google is the only technology company to disclose information about government requests such as these; a sign of Google's movement toward more transparency.

That is not to say that Google doesn't support bringing to justice its users who might be conducting illegal activity.

"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 a blog post. "People don't always use our services for good, and it's important that law enforcement be able to investigate illegal activity." Tweet quote: Tweet

The FBI issued a total of 50,000 national security letters in 2006 alone. It is safe to assume that in 2012 that number was much higher. In the grand scheme of things, Google only represents a fraction of information sources available to the FBI.

In 2007, the Justice Department inspector general issued a report that found what he called "serious misuse" of NSLs and called for more control. Since then, they have been used much more efficiently.

These invasive methods of acquiring information have attracted the attention of civil rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The organization has some harsh words for the practice.

"Of all the dangerous government surveillance powers that were expanded by the USA Patriot Act, the National Security Letter power … is one of the most frightening and invasive," the EFF wrote. "These letters … allow the FBI to secretly demand data about ordinary American citizens' private communications and Internet activity without any meaningful oversight or prior judicial review.”

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