The Police Are Watching Your Google Searches


Google headquarters sign


Google released a transparency report last week showing that government snooping into your personal data is on the rise.

The numbers released by the Internet giant show that law enforcement officials in the United States made 8,438 data requests over the second half of 2012, a 6 percent increase from the first six months of the year. Such requests have risen by more than 85 percent since 2010.

Of the governmental requests, Google says that it complies with about 89 percent, and 68 percent are made without a search warrant.

Google’s reputation has taken a beating recently, as it had to pay $22.5 million last year for violating users’ privacy for its own purposes, but it does earn some props for standing up to the law in one respect: A company spokesperson clarified that they do require a search warrant to supply the contents of a users’ email, although other information, such as who owns the account, can be given with just a subpoena.

Here the company goes beyond what is required under current rules. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act is rather outdated– in fact, it’s from 1986– and contains now-antiquated provisions such as giving police carte blanche to look at email older than 180 days. Congress gave lip-service last fall toupdating the Act to better fit with 21st century technology, but failed to put forward any kind of meaningful reform.

Google, however, has indicated that they do ask for a warrant before sharing email, regardless of how old it is. A reasonable argument could be made in court that the content of private email falls under theFourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, regardless of what a nearly 30-year-old law says. Ultimately, it’s a question for the Supreme Court to decide, should a case ever come across the bench.

Maintain Your Privacy

Attorney Elliot S. Schlissel headshot

Elliot S. Schlissel

For a bit of irony, consider that Monday, Jan. 28 is officially “Data Privacy Day,” as deemed by the U.S. House of Representatives. “Many individuals,” the resolution reads, “are unaware of data protection and privacy laws generally and of specific steps that can be taken to help protect the privacy of personal information online.” Indeed.

“It happens to Americans all the time,” writes Elliot S. Schlissel of the New York-based Law Office of Elliot S. Schlissel on the firm blog. “Government agencies have search and subpoena powers with regard to information maintained on your computer, on your emails, stored on your cloud or maintained in cyberspace.”

What steps can users take to keep Uncle Sam’s big nose out of their email? “There are encrypting services,” Schlissel writes. “GPG is a company that can help you encrypt your e-mails. WICKR, a mobile app, provides a similar service with regard to the encryption of emails. This app can be utilized on smart phones. However, metadata, even for deleted files, remains on the phone’s hard drive. Forensics specialist and hackers can still obtain this information.”

Is there any sure way to keep your personal messages and other electronic data out of the hands of police offices, courtrooms, headlines, and so on? “The best way to maintain the privacy of your most private thoughts is to never put them in writing,” Schlissel advises.

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