Google gets "dozens" of requests for users' information from governments, courts and police forces around the world every day, according to the company. These requests are up 70% over the last three years, but exactly how Google handles data demands from government agencies has been a mystery — until now.
Google released on Monday new details about how it handles officials' requests for user data, stressing that it does everything in its power to keep user data private when it's legally able to do so.
Police or courts might ask Google to turn over user data if it's considered relevant to an investigation. When Google receives such a request, it pours over the request to ensure it complies with the law and Google's own policies.
"For us to consider complying, it generally must be made in writing, signed by an authorized official of the requesting agency and issued under an appropriate law," reads a blog post from Google Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond in a Monday blog post.
If a request passes this stage, Google then considers whether the request is overly broad in scope. If Google decides the request is indeed too broad, it either denies the request or looks to narrow it.
For example, a hypothetical request might demand Google hand over five months of a users' emails and his YouTube uploads. Google could take steps to narrow that down to, say, one month of emails and no YouTube content.
After a request passes these benchmarks, Google notifies targeted users that a request has been made for their information — if it's legally able. Warrants are occasionally sealed to protect an investigation. In this case, Google takes steps to make the warrant public so that it may notify the user. Notification of a request allows users to contact legal counsel.
Finally and most significantly, Google's standards for handing over user data are stronger than those required by American law — an important and controversial point.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) requires police to obtain a warrant only for emails and other electronic communications less than six months old. Google, however, views the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures to trump the ECPA, and thus it requires a warrant for emails. This legal conflict has yet to be tested at the Supreme Court.
"We’re a law-abiding company, and we don’t want our services to be used in harmful ways," wrote Drummond. "But it’s just as important that laws protect you against overly broad requests for your personal information."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is calling for a new law that would require police to get a warrant for all emails and other online communications.