Google on Friday updated its annual transparency report which revealed that government requests for data are on the rise across the world. Google has given out the data from January to June 2013 and, as far as India goes, our government is number two on the list when it comes to seeking data and user account information.
Google received a total of 25,879 legal requests from governments across the world and over 10,918 were from the US government. Second on the list was India with 2,691 requests, followed by France and Germany.
But it clearly wasn’t a happy Google that published the data report.
Google’s Richard Salgado wrote on the blog, “Requests from governments for user information have increased by more than 100 percent. This comes as usage of our services continues to grow, but also as more governments have made requests than ever before. And these numbers only include the requests we’re allowed to publish.”
In fact Google’s blog post had four charts, and the fourth one was wiped out with black ink indicating that these particular requests were made under the US Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) and thus Google could not disclose them. Google’s report while important is likely to be viewed with some skepticism given that it comes post the revelations about how US spied on nearly every major country via the NSA and it’s various programmes such as PRISM, Boundless Informant.
If one were to look at the India numbers for the period of January-June 2013, the Indian government made 2,691 requests and asked for user/account details of nearly 4161 users. Google complied with 64 percent of these requests meaning that data was provided in 64 percent of the requests. But what is not clear is the number of accounts for which data was revealed. What is evident from the numbers is that the number of requests has been increasing year on year.
In the Jan-June period for 2012, the Indian government had made 2319 data requests to Google and wanted information on 3467 users/accounts.
Google complied with 66 percent of the requests. In 2011 Jan to June, the number of data requests was 1739, while the account/user information requested was of 2439 accounts. If one were to look at the table below, the number of requests has been steadily increasing since 2009 onwards.
And while the graph is rising steadily, it doesn’t help to give a sense of the macro-picture when it comes to internet surveillance. Anja Kovas, who heads the Internet Democracy Project in Delhi, says that, “The figures in these reports need to be taken with a grain of salt as indications of the extent of government surveillance. For example, some data requests made to Google by the Indian government are routed through the US government. If this is the case, the request ultimately will show up on the Transparency Report for the US, not for India. Conversely, if several intelligence agencies in India make requests to Google for data from the same person, each instance would be counted separately in the Google transparency report. Thus, the figures could be both an overrepresentation and an underrepresentation of the actual number of people affected, and therefore need to be used with care.”
And while the numbers themselves might not be clear, there’s no overlooking the fact that where data requests go, Google isn’t the only place where India has been demanding user account data. Facebook, which released its first transparency report, noted that after the US government, it was the Indian government which had the most data requests. The Indian government made 3,245 data requests and made data requests for 4,144 users/accounts. Facebook complied with 50 percent of these requests.
Microsoft’s recent transparency report revealed that India made over 371 user data requests (including for Skype) between January-June. This is a substantial increase given that for the entire 2012 calendar year, Microsoft including Skype had received 471 user data requests from India. Microsoft’s report covers requests for data relating to all of Microsoft’s online and cloud services as well.
The numbers, while they don’t give a detailed sense of why these requests were made, are still an important indicator of the way government surveillance has been increasing. “The greatest value of these figures therefore lies, perhaps, in the comparison they allow us to make over time. That the figures for India continue to increase is obviously disappointing, especially at a time where the need for greater prudence on the part of governments where surveillance is concerned has become so painfully clear and has been discussed so widely.” says Kovacs.
Perhaps the best example of increasing government surveillance is where content removal requests for YouTube is concerned. Google’s transparency report shows that in Jan-June 2012, the requests were well under the 100 mark. In July to December period this request had increased to 2540 in total spurred by two events. According to Google these were, the release of the film ‘Innocence of Islam’ on YouTube and the second being the mass panic among people from the North-east. Overall though Google noted for the 2012 period alone “the number of content removal requests it received increased by 90 percent compared to the previous reporting period.” Google hasn’t yet given out details for content removal for 2013, yet, but when it does it will be interesting to see by how much it has increased.
Regardless of the lack of details, the Google report, each year seems to confirm the one uncomfortable truth that not everyone seems to care about. That when it comes to the Internet, our governments are asking for more and more information and the reasons for that are not always clear.