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Google Explains How It Handles Police Requests For Users' Data

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Google wants you to know you're being watched. Or rather, the company wants you to know how and when the police get to watch what you do online.

For the first time, the company has posted its policies for when it gives up users' information to the government. It's part of a broader company strategy to push for tougher privacy laws.

Tech companies don't usually dwell on the subject of the authorities looking at your stuff, but that's exactly what Google Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond is doing in a special "Frequently Asked Questions" page posted Monday.

"The new thing is that we're actually sort of saying in a granular way, product by product, how it is that we handle the requests," Drummond says.

The company has posted the information for the four Google products that attract the most requests from police. For Google Voice, for instance, you can look up what the police would need to listen in to your voice mail.

It says they need a search warrant — which means they'd first have to show a judge "probable cause" of a crime. Police face less of a challenge, though, to find out who owns a particular Gmail address. All that takes is a subpoena — no probable cause required, and — often — no judge.

"Most companies are very secretive about civil and law enforcement requests for user data," says Chris Hoofnagle, who specializes in privacy issues at Berkeley Law. He says companies usually prefer to preserve some wiggle room on how they respond to law enforcement.

"Google is going out on a limb here because, by making these statements, they might be creating customer expectations that certain process will be followed when their data is revealed to law enforcement," Hoofnagle says.

Or maybe Google is looking for a little cover. For the past few years, the company has maintained that, broadly speaking, online content should always require a warrant. But that's not clear in federal law.

Posting these policies may make it easier for the company to resist pressure from a government agency looking for quiet cooperation, and it also buttresses Google's longstanding lobbying effort to put explicit warrant protection into federal law.

Most of the industry thinks tougher privacy law would be good for business, especially on cloud-based services.

Google's Drummond says the company is trying to build public support.

"As life moves more and more online and life becomes more digital, we want to make sure that people don't lose protections that they had in the analog world," he says.

Google has also started breaking down government requests that it gets according to type. For instance, 22 percent of the requests are warrants, which would indicate that, about one-fifth of the time, agencies are asking for content — they want to read someone's words or listen to someone's voice.

But other details are still tantalizingly absent — such as the types of crimes being investigated. Drummond says Google still can't tell us whether fraud cases generate more requests than, say, national security.

"When we were coming up with this, that was something I was hoping we could do," Drummond says. "The problem is, in the vast majority of cases, we don't know. Right? And the government isn't required to tell us what they're investigating."

But while that mystery remains, Google's stats indicate it is pushing back a little more. Two years ago, it said "no" to the requests just 6 percent of the time — now that number is up to 12 percent.

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