Comparing requests by country (Google provides only top-line national data, so we can't see how many were in Texas v. California, etc.), the United States was far and away the source of the most law enforcement requests to Google for information and, even more interesting, far and away had the smallest proportion of requests denied. Google responded with user account information to 90% of US law enforcement requests in the first half of 2012, which was actually down from the previous reporting periods. According to the transparency report, "We review each request to make sure that it complies with both the spirit and the letter of the law, and we may refuse to produce information or try to narrow the request in some cases." Fair enough.
Here's what I don't understand. Take a look at the approval rates for various governments that requested user account information from Google:
- United States: 90%
- Japan: 86%
- Brazil: 76%
- Switzerland: 68%
- United Kingdom: 64%
- India: 64%
- Australia: 64%
- Taiwan: 63%
- Israel: 60%
- Spain: 52%
- France: 42%
- Germany: 39%
- Italy: 34%
- South Korea: 35%
- Canada: 24%
- Russia: 0%
- Turkey: 0%
Not only is the rate of law enforcement requests granted by Google especially high in the United States, US agencies ask for information far more frequently than in any other country, and the number of requests is growing dramatically. Here's a chart Grits compiled from Google transparency reports:
The flip side of that debate, of course, is that Google provides more transparency on these questions than companies like Facebook or US cell phone providers, so one hesitates to criticize them too harshly simply because they divulge (a little) more information than other tech companies who share user information with law enforcement. But with the government accessing Google user account information at such a rapidly increasing pace, Google cannot escape accountability for their own role in the erosion of online privacy, and the Petraeus scandal has momentarily brought that role to the forefront.
Grits continues to ponder the implications of these events and so do many others. See these items related to the implications for online privacy from the Petraeus scandal.
- EFF: When will our email betray us? An email privacy primer in light of the Petraeus scandal
- ACLU: Surveillance and security lessons from the Petraeus scandal
- Reuters: Collateral damage of our surveillance state
- The Week: What the heck, FBI?
- Glenn Greenwald: FBI's abuse of surveillance state is the real scandal needing investigation
- Wired: All three branches agree: Big Brother is the new normal
Perhaps in answering these sorts of questions we can eventually discover the real lessons of the Petraeus scandal beyond the partisan carping and short-term political positioning that's so far mostly dominated the national conversation surrounding the spymaster's fall from grace.