Article 43


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Google’s Surveillance Secret


Google Talks Transparency, But Hides Surveillance Stats

By David Kravets
December 17, 2009

Google likes to trumpet transparency and free expression, especially when it concerns the internet, part of its commitment to the corporate motto, DonӒt Be Evil.

But despite the companyԒs recent online public policy posts espousing unfettered online expression, we arent buying it.

The Mountain View, California, search and advertising giant said Wednesday, for example, that it was a company that “believes deeply in free expression” and that it was “determined to continue to do our part and make new, significant contributions to promote free expression in 2010.”

But juxtapose those and other recent statements on its PUBLIC POLICY BLOG with the real facts facts that Google wonגt cough up.

We asked Google some simple questions about how much user data it turns over to the government. These are questions at the heart of free expression, especially with a company that wants you to use its operating system, its browser, its DNS servers, its search service and its e-mail and phone calling programs.

Google, however, declined to address the question adequately.

Heres GoogleҒs answer, as provided by spokesman Brian Richardson:

We dont talk about types or numbers of requests to help protect all our users. Obviously, we follow the law like any other company. When we receive a subpoena or court order, we check to see if it meets both the letter and the spirit of the law before complying. And if it doesnҒt we can object or ask that the request is narrowed. We have a track record of advocating on behalf of our users


What is Google hiding? Are the numbers so big that Google might be seen as an agent of the government, or that people might rethink the wisdom of filling up 7 GB of free e-mail space?

These are questions weve been asking of Google since 2006, when it launched its five-point plan to deal with censorship in CHINA.

To be fair, no other tech company and no ISP publishes this data, either.

But thereҒs certainly no law against it. Google prides itself on doing brave and innovative things that other companies wouldnt even consider doing, just because itҒs the right thing to do.

But instead, Google has chosen to side with the rest of the industry and REFUSE, ON PRINCIPLE, TO BE OPEN WITH THEIR CUSTOMERS. That makes us think Google agrees with some peers that suggest that the public simply cant handle the truth.

Verizon, for example, recently told the government it might “confuse the public” if it released how much it charged the government to assist in collecting user data via pen register/trap-and-trace orders and wiretaps.

Yahoo said its pricing structure amounted to ԓconfidential commercial information and would “shock consumers.”

Verizon made its statements as it objected to a Freedom of Information Act request from graduate student Christopher Sogohian seeking its price sheet, and said the company receives ԓtens of thousands of requests annually from law enforcement agencies for customer records and information.

Verizon did not intend for that number to be made public. It announced the figure in a letter to the government that became public last week through a follow-up FOIA request by Soghoian.

Sogohian’s intention was to combine the price sheets, with government data on how much it spent on getting phone and net records, to figure out how many requests the feds sent per year.

We suspect, not unreasonably, that Google also receives tens of thousands of law enforcement and other requests each year for data with most of them being lawful.

But we don’t have any sense of how often the government or others go on a wide-open fishing expeditions.

Google knows, but its not telling.

We don’t know how many subpoenas Google turned away; how many sought search records; and how many came in civil cases, such as a divorce where an unhappy husband wanted to see whats in his soon-to-be ex-wife’s Gmail account.

Google defends IT’S POLICY, saying it has a history of fighting for privacy. It uses the example of its successful court fight to keep bulk search records from the feds.

Whats more, Google has belatedly become a leader in online advertising privacy, giving users the chance to see what the company’s behavioral advertising algorithms think of them, to delete categories and opt out entirely. In fact, Yahoo liked the idea enough to launch its own version just weeks ago.

And Google on Wednesday deplored that an increasing number of governments are restricting access to information online, such as China blocking sites that could be viewed as anti-government. Google also applauded this week a bill that would force the State Department to include more information in its human rights reports.

Thats laudable.

Yet Google retains information, and refuses to share data that could shed a bright light over how much the government and others potentially tread on online privacy.

Google has the chance to walk its talk, and set a standard - as it has so many times before for the rest of the internet to follow.

If it doesn’t, shouldn’t the company think twice about trumpeting transparency, when it won’t come clean with its own users?


Posted by Elvis on 12/19/09 •
Section Privacy And Rights • Section Broadband Privacy
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