Google shows how gov asks for user data in latest Transparency Report

Google on guard

Who watches the watchmen? Today, that's Google.

The search giant released new data in its Transparency Report Wednesday. This time the statistics focus on user data requests that Google receives from governments around the world.

From July to December, 2012, Google received about 21,000 total request for info on more than 33,500 users. But not all of those investigations bore fruit, and in about 66 percent of cases some data was produced by those requests.

As noted by Google, the number of user data requests from governments around the world has steadily increased since the company started reporting the data in 2009. In the last half of 2011, governments made about 18,000 requests, growing to about 20,900 requests in the first half of 2012.

It's also worth noting that Google isn't the only technology or communications company that hands over data to governments. But it's one of the few companies that sheds light on how much it gives up.

Big brother's bigger brother

The statistics primarily cover requests related to criminal matters. Since the company covers a wide range of services, a Google spokesperson told TechRadar the requests can cover a large amount of data types.

A subpoena could compel the company to disclose the name that a user listed when he or she created their account, as well as tell the government the IP address the account was created through and the dates and times of sign ins and sign outs.

Other requests might require Google to give up the non-content portion of email heads such as who sent and received the email, and the date information. A warrant could also force Google to disclose "stored content such the contents of a Gmail account," according to the spokesperson.

For users in the United States, there's a first-time ever, special treat included in the report.

Along with its breakdown of request by country, Google included a breakdown of the kinds of legal processes that U.S. agencies use to compel the tech giant to give up user info.

According to the stats, 68 percent of those requests were subpoenas issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). That's amounts to about 5,700 subpoenas.

According to Google's blog, the company mostly sees user data requests through subpoenas because those typically don't need judges to order them, making subpoenas the easiest to get.

Then about 22 percent of those requests were through ECPA search warrants, and the remaining 10 percent of requests were mostly ECPA court orders.

Not the whole picture

It hard for Google to pin down the reasons why it's getting more requests on users data or discern any trends for the data they give up.

"It's difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the numbers we're reporting because they only show a tiny sliver of what's happening on the internet at large," the Google spokesperson, who asked not to be identified, told TechRadar.

"But we do hope that by disclosing more data, we can further contribute to a public conversation about the laws and policies that control government access to user information."

So Google isn't giving us the whole picture, just a piece of the puzzle.

And we should expect another piece - content removal requests - sometime in the future. Google used to include those numbers along with its other data in its transparency reports, but it will now report those statistics separately.