Google released its most recent transparency report last week, and the results show that the number of US government requests for user data and information has grown by more than 24 percent in the past six months alone. Between January and June of this year, Google reported that US government agencies requested information on 48,902 accounts, which is far more than the previous record number of requests set just six months earlier. Apple has also reported an even bigger 62 percent increase in US government requests during the first half of 2017, although it still experienced a much smaller total volume of only 6,407 total requests.
Many experts are predicting the trend to only worsen in the future, and it’s not only the American government that is requesting user data. Worldwide, the number of government requests for user data has risen by approximately 14 percent over the past six months, and countries like Brazil, Spain and South Korea join the US in having an even steeper increase than this average. Interestingly, the United Kingdom has actually experienced a 7 percent decrease over the period, which means that the UK government made its fewest amount of requests for user data since 2014.
In the majority of the cases, the requests take the form of a subpoena. With a subpoena, Google, Apple or other providers are required to comply with the government requests to turn over information related to IP addresses, names associated with accounts and any other pertinent information. The requests can also take the form of a search warrant should the agency prove that they have probable cause that information related to a specific crime can be found by accessing the account details. There was a huge increase in so-called ‘tap and trace’ orders, which can be used to gather information on IP addresses, dialed phone numbers and other details in real time.
Although Google and other providers are required to comply with the majority of these other requests, government officials can also use emergency requests. In this case, the agency can request access to a user’s data if they believe that it can be used to prevent physical harm to a person or death. These requests can be made without obtaining a warrant or issuing any other legal order. However, the providers are not required to comply with these requests.
Google and Apple have both noted that the number of requests is definitely on the rise, but they have also taken pains to assure their users that they only comply with the requests when required to do so. Furthermore, Google specifically noted that it is likely that the total number of accounts is not actually 49,802, as many types of requests could have been issued related to one specific account. Either way, the fact is that government agencies are turning more and more towards Google and Apple in the hopes of helping them solve crimes, which means that it will be up to the companies themselves to try to strike the right balance between complying with governments and protecting the privacy of their users.