Google's latest transparency report shows government surveillance on the rise in U.S.

Lilly Chapa | Privacy | News | November 19, 2012

Paula Broadwell isn’t the only person whose Gmail messages were read by government officials – Google received almost 8,000 e-mail access requests from U.S. state and federal governments in the past six months, according to the latest Google Transparency Report.

Google fully or partially granted 90 percent of the requests made by federal, state and local U.S. governments, according to the report. The requests by stateside governments account for more than a third of requests worldwide.

"This is the sixth time we’ve released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise," Google stated on its official blog. The service provider first launched the transparency report in 2010.

Digital Due Process Coalition spokesman Jim Dempsey said that the growing number of government requests is concerning and that the standards in place to keep the government from abusing its powers are inadequate.

“The numbers highlight the need for protection against overreaching by the government,” Dempsey said. “Our personal and professional lives are all intertwined and service providers are in no position to figure out what’s relevant or not.”

Google received almost 21,000 requests from governments around the world for users’ private data from January through June of this year, according to the company’s semiannual transparency report. That’s a 75 percent increase in requests from the same timeframe last year.

Dempsey said that the account information can be accessed through a search warrant or a subpoena, but access to the e-mail messages themselves can only be gained through court-ordered search warrants.

Google states in its report that the company tries to fulfill only narrow requests. “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,” the report stated.

Users must be notified by the government if the service provider allows access to their account through a subpoena, according to Dempsey. If access is through a search warrant, the government doesn't have to notify the user, but the service provider may choose to do so.

Officials can go through the courts to delay notifying a user about access to his or her account if there's a chance the user will alter or delete sought e-mail records. The government can delay notification in 90-day increments that can be extended indefinitely.

Dempsey said the report and the Petraeus scandal emphasize the need for more adequate electronic privacy laws.

“When the government comes in, they come with a very broad demand,” Dempsey said. “In return they get a very broad swath of information, and they’re allowed to look at it all – professional and personal, mundane and sensitive. We see in the Petraeus case how quickly investigations can become wide-ranging. It involves many people and leads to embarrassing revelations that have nothing to do with criminal conduct.”

In May, the FBI gained access to Broadwell’s Gmail account during a routine investigation and uncovered her affair with CIA director David Petraeus who has since resigned because of the incident. The investigation also led to the discovery of “flirtatious” e-mail messages between a Tampa woman and Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, a top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.