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January 29, 2013

Google Initiatives Help Safeguard User Privacy

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Google has your back when it comes to privacy, says a company official.

Google senior vice-president and chief legal officer David Drummond took to the company blog Jan. 28 to reassure its users the company is not cavalier when it comes to releasing user information to authorities (courts and government agencies).

Google’s recently released Transparency Report revealed government requests for user data has continued to rise globally and, once again, the U.S. is leading the charge.

In the July to December period of 2012, Google received 8,438 requests for information from the U.S., a six percent increase from the first half of 2012. Google complied with 88 percent of requests from authorities made by subpoena or search warrant.

“It’s important for law enforcement agencies to pursue illegal activity and keep the public safe,” Drummond said. “We’re a law-abiding company, and we don’t want our services to be used in harmful ways. But it’s just as important that laws protect you against overly broad requests for your personal information.”

To strike a balance, Google employs three initiatives to protect user privacy and security, he said.

1. Backing Law Updates

Google is actively advocating laws such as the U.S. Electronic Communications Privacy Act be updated so e-mail and online documents receive the same protection under the law as personal documents kept in a home filing cabinet or safe.

“We’ll continue this effort strongly in 2013 through our membership in the Digital Due Process coalition and other initiatives,” Drummond said.

2. Request Scrutiny
When a government agency requests a user’s personal information the Google team carefully examines the request  to ensure it satisfies the law and its own policies. Google said for requests to be considered, generally, they must be made in writing, signed by an authorized official of the requesting agency and issued under an appropriate law.

Drummond said if a request is too broad, Google frequently refuses to provide the information or seeks to narrow the request. The company also notifies users about legal demands “when appropriate so they can contact the entity requesting it or consult a lawyer,” Drummond said. “Sometimes we can’t, either because we’re legally prohibited (in which case we sometimes seek to lift gag orders or unseal search warrants) or we don’t have their verified contact information.”

Google also requires government agencies conducting criminal investigations to obtain a search warrant before releasing user’s search query information and private content stored in a Google account such as Gmail messages, documents, photos and YouTube videos.

“We believe a warrant is required by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and overrides conflicting provisions in ECPA,” Drummond said.

3. Keeping Users Informed
Google releases bi-annual Transparency Reports to try to keep its users informed about the process. Google this week has added a new section to its report to answers users’ questions such as: Why might a government agency request my data? or I received an e-mail from Google saying that someone has requested information related to my account. What does this mean?

“We’re proud of our approach,” Drummond said. “We believe it’s the right way to make sure governments can pursue legitimate investigations while we do our best to protect your privacy and security.”

 

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