We first launched the Transparency Report in 2010 to help the public learn about the scope of government requests for user data. With recent revelations about government surveillance, calls for companies to make encryption keys available to police, and a wide range of proposals, both in and out of the U.S., to expand surveillance powers throughout the world, the issues today are more complicated than ever. Some issues, like ECPA reform, are less complex, and we’re encouraged by the broad support in Congress for legislation that would codify a standard requiring warrants for communications content.
Google’s position remains consistent: We respect the important role of the government in investigating and combating security threats, and we comply with valid legal process. At the same time, we’ll fight on behalf of our users against unlawful requests for data or mass surveillance. We also work to make sure surveillance laws are transparent, principled, and reasonable.
Today’s Transparency Report update
With this in mind, we’re adding some new details to our Transparency Report that we’re releasing today.
- Emergency disclosure requests. We’ve expanded our reporting on requests for information we receive in emergency situations. These emergency disclosure requests come from government agencies seeking information to save the life of a person who is in peril (like a kidnapping victim), or to prevent serious physical injury (like a threatened school shooting). We have a process for evaluating and fast-tracking these requests, and in true emergencies we can provide the necessary data without delay. The Transparency Report previously included this number for the United States, but we’re now reporting for every country that submits this sort of request.
- Preservation requests. We’re also now reporting on government requests asking us to set aside information relating to a particular user’s account. These requests can be made so that information needed in an investigation is not lost while the government goes through the steps to get the formal legal process asking us to disclose the information. We call these “preservation requests” and because they don’t always lead to formal data requests, we keep them separate from the country totals we report. Beginning with this reporting period, we’re reporting this number for every country.
In addition to this new data, the report shows that we’ve received 30,138 requests from around the world seeking information about more than 50,585 users/accounts; we provided information in response to 63 percent of those requests. We saw slight increases in the number of requests from governments in Europe (2 percent) and Asia/Pacific (7 percent), and a 22 percent increase in requests from governments in Latin America.
The fight for increased transparency
Sometimes, laws and gag-orders prohibit us from notifying someone that a request for their data has been made. There are some situations where these restrictions make sense, and others not so much. We will fight—sometimes through lengthy court action—for our users’ right to know when data requests have been made. We’ve recently succeeded in a couple of important cases.
First, after years of persistent litigation in which we fought for the right to inform Wikileaks of government requests for their data, we were successful in unsealing court documents relating to these requests. We’re now making those documents available to the public here and here.
Second, we’ve fought to be more transparent regarding the U.S. government’s use of National Security Letters, or NSLs. An NSL is a special type of subpoena for user information that the FBI issues without prior judicial oversight. NSLs can include provisions prohibiting the recipient from disclosing any information about it. Reporters speculated in 2013 that we challenged the constitutionality of NSLs; after years of litigation with the government in several courts across multiple jurisdictions, we can now confirm that we challenged 19 NSLs and fought for our right to disclose this to the public. We also recently won the right to release additional information about those challenges and the documents should be available on the public court dockets soon.
Finally, just yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 338-88 to pass the USA Freedom Act of 2015. This represents a significant step toward broader surveillance reform, while preserving important national security authorities. Read more on our U.S. Public Policy blog.