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Governments Increasingly Ask Google for User Data in Criminal Matters

Google has disclosed statistics on government requests for data and for content removal. Next to Brazil, the United States put in the most requests for user data in criminal matters -- 3,580 in the last half of 2009.

Here's something that I found interesting. It's on the subject of government, privacy and digital trails. Google says that it's getting more and more requests from governments for data on its users.

Next to Brazil, the United States puts in the most requests for user data in criminal matters. That's according to newly released statistics from Google. In the latter half of 2009, U.S. government agencies put in at least 3,580 requests for data. One request, however, could seek data for multiple users. Data on Chinese requests was not disclosed.

In an interactive map released yesterday, the company disclosed statistics for both data requests and content removal requests by government agencies. During that time, the U.S. put in 123 requests for content to be removed, 44 of which were court orders. Google reports that it complied either fully or partially with 81 percent of those requests. It did not provide a compliance rate for requests to retrieve user data.

"The statistics here reflect the number of law enforcement agency requests for information we receive at Google and YouTube," said Google on the company website. "We may refuse to produce information or try to narrow the request in some cases."

"Decisions about what content to remove or which user data requests to comply with can be complicated and difficult," said the company. "We try to make as much information as possible available to our users and, at the same time, work hard to protect their privacy."

Months earlier, Google had itself been the subject of criticism for compromising user privacy with a social networking product called Buzz. It quickly moved to fix the privacy flaw. The company also recently made the decision to stop censoring search results in China and began redirecting users to its search engine in Hong Kong.

I spoke to Christopher Calabrese, Legislative Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, who said the numbers reflect the extent to which government is accessing information online.

"You do think that not everyone is going to be the subject of a criminal investigation, but what these numbers show is pretty extraordinary," said Calabrese. "More than 3500 requests were made here, just to Google alone, and just in the last six months. We have no idea how many were sent to Microsoft, to Yahoo, to Amazon, and to all the other online companies...People really should be concerned because of the richness of information online, because of how much it conveys about each of us, and because we have little idea of what they're doing with it."

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