Q: “I recently read that Google is providing a lot of user data to the government. Is this even legal? Don’t we have any protection over our personal information?”
A: Yes, it is true that Google routinely provides user information to the government. In some ways, we shouldn’t be too surprised, as Google collects an amazing amount of data about us, and our online privacy has taken a beating since Congress passed (and reauthorized) the Patriot Act after 9/11.
But in fairness, Google is doing a pretty good job trying to balance their user’s privacy rights while still complying with subpoenas for information from the federal government.
They’ve actually pushed back against the government and turned over less personal information than you might expect. Also, they’ve done an admirable job educating the public about what information they provide to the government.
Still, it’s good to understand exactly what information Google collects on you, and what user data they turn over to the government.
What Google Knows About You
I’ve said this before, but it’s pretty mind-boggling what Google knows about you.
If you use Gmail, Google tracks and stores every email you send, every search term you look up, every Google chat you make, every conversation you have with Google Voice, every appointment you enter into your Google calendar, and every Picasa picture you store, among other things. They even track everything you search on for up to six months even when you are not logged into Google.
They track this information in order to target specific ads to you. If you don’t like it, too bad. Last year was your last chance to opt out of this, and if you still use any Google products at this point, you have implicitly (and probably unknowingly) agreed to this practice.
Now, this is different from what they turn over to the government, but it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that Google has already amassed huge amounts of data on you.
What Google Turns Over to the Government
Google received over 21,000 requests for information on nearly fifteen thousand Google users from the U.S. government in 2012 alone. Of this, Google provided “some data” in 88% of the cases. We don’t know for sure what “some data” means.
Government requests for information from Google have been rising exponentially in the last few years, with a 70% increase since 2009. This trend is likely to continue.
But what information about Google users is the government asking for exactly? Below are some examples:
- Subscriber registration information
- Sign-in IP addresses and associated time stamps
- Email content
- Copy of a private video and associated video information
- Telephone connection records
- Billing information
- Stored text message content
- Stored voicemail content
- Blog owner subscriber information
- IP address and associated time stamp related to a specified blog post
- IP address and associated time stamp related to a specified post comment
- Private blog post and comment content
Yes, It’s Legal for the Government to Access Your Digital Data
Part of the problem with our new digital age is that it’s hard to figure out what personal information is protected and what isn’t. When the Electronic Communications Act was passed back in 1986, there was no online storage of our data, for instance. While technology has advanced, our laws haven’t.
For example, you may not know that different modes of information transmission are treated differently by the law. The government needs a court order to look at your email, but not at your phone records or texts. I’ll say that again: the government can look at your texts without any court oversight at all.
So while Google is doing an admirable job of trying to communicate what information it’s providing to the government, our privacy laws give no real insight as to what is protected and what isn’t. Meanwhile, the government seems to be doing all it can to weaken our basic right to privacy.
As always, unless you take steps to protect your privacy, it’s best to assume you are being listened to or watched when doing anything online.