Google Explains How It Handles Police Requests For Users' Data

By Martin Kaste, NPR


Google wants you to know you're being watched. Or rather, the company wants you to know how and when the police get to watch what you do online.

For the first time, the company has posted its policies for when it gives up users' information to the government. It's part of a broader company strategy to push for tougher privacy laws.

Tech companies don't usually dwell on the subject of the authorities looking at your stuff, but that's exactly what Google Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond is doing in a special "Frequently Asked Questions" page posted Monday.

"The new thing is that we're actually sort of saying in a granular way, product by product, how it is that we handle the requests," Drummond says.

The company has posted the information for the four Google products that attract the most requests from police. For Google Voice, for instance, you can look up what the police would need to listen in to your voice mail.

It says they need a search warrant — which means they'd first have to show a judge "probable cause" of a crime. Police face less of a challenge, though, to find out who owns a particular Gmail address. All that takes is a subpoena — no probable cause required, and — often — no judge.

"Most companies are very secretive about civil and law enforcement requests for user data," says Chris Hoofnagle, who specializes in privacy issues at Berkeley Law. He says companies usually prefer to preserve some wiggle room on how they respond to law enforcement.

"Google is going out on a limb here because, by making these statements, they might be creating customer expectations that certain process will be followed when their data is revealed to law enforcement," Hoofnagle says.